Youth climate strikers and their human rights

[27 June 2019] In Geneva this week, CRIN co-hosted a round-table discussion on the rights of children and young people to demand action and justice for the climate crisis. Together with the environmental law organisations CIEL and Earthjustice we were joined by climate youth groups from Switzerland, and the event was an opportunity to hear their experiences of organising strikes, making calls to policy makers to declare a climate emergency and sitting at the negotiation table with local authorities.

The youth group Groupe Jeune Climat Valais from the Canton of Valais told how authorities banned climate strikes by school students from taking place and that local schools sanctioned students who joined protests during school hours by giving them detention, penalising their test scores for missed exams and issuing warnings for ‘unjustified’ absence. 

To better react to these actions, the students decided to organise themselves and form an association in order to be recognised as a legitimate interlocutor by local authorities. Although they are still not allowed to go on strike during school hours, they managed to negotiate with local politicians to establish a ‘Sustainability day’ in all schools of the canton to take place on 17 September. They also reached the decision for schools in the canton to start using the sustainable Internet browser Ecosia, which donates 80 percent of its profits to tree planting projects.

The event speakers later reiterated States’ legal obligations with regard to the climate protests under international human rights law. This includes the Europe-wide Aarhus Convention - a regional agreement that sets out people’s right to public participation, access to information and access to justice in environmental matters.  Yves Lador from Earthjustice highlighted that as the climate crisis impacts children, they should not be stopped from exercising their right of public participation under the Aarhus Convention. If Switzerland doesn’t comply with these legal obligations, a complaint could be brought before the UN committee that monitors States’ compliance with the Convention for blocking the strikes from taking place.

As for CRIN’s own Isabelle Kolebinov, she stressed that children have civil and political rights of their own, including their independent freedom of expression, freedom of thought and conscience, the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and the right to access information, all without discrimination based on their age. But preventing youth strikers from organising and taking part in protests denies them these rights, which is in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What authorities are failing to recognise, she added, is that these strikes are a demand for democracy from young people because, without having the right to vote, their only way of making public demands and influencing policy is through civil disobedience and taking to the streets. That said, the most effective way to help young people defend their rights and demand climate action is having the right to vote, Kolebinov concluded. 

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For more information on under-18s’ right to vote, read this manifesto.