Vance Center Advice Assists UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Preparing Landmark General Comment on the Environment and Climate Change

September 2023

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently released a landmark general comment on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change.

The Vance Center and partner firm Clifford Chance, with a team led by Janet Whittaker in Washington, DC and Counsel Elliot Luke in Perth, Australia, provided crucial advice and legal support in the development of General Comment 26, published on August 22. 

The Committee on the Rights of the Child, supported by Vance Center client Terre des Hommes, relied on a wide range of such input while developing the general comment. The Committee received more than 170 written submissions from States, United Nations entities, national human rights institutions, civil society and children’s organizations, held consultations in Asia and South America, and received 16,331 contributions from children representing 121 countries. 

Both the Committee and Terre des Hommes encountered a challenge in considering the interaction between the Convention and key principles of international environmental law. For expert advice on this matter, Terre des Hommes turned to the Vance Center.  

Working with teams of Clifford Chance lawyers in Australia, Europe, and the United States, the Vance Center provided a series of legal memoranda on the role of principles such as prevention, precaution, and intergenerational equity in interpreting the Convention. These principles are clearly reflected in General Comment 26, where they are integrated throughout the text. In addition to the memoranda, the project included meetings with the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Children’s Advisory team (a collective of children from across the world, advising the Committee on its deliberations). 

General Comment 26 emphasizes that States owe specific obligations to children to guarantee their rights are protected from environmental threats. According to the general comment, States have both substantive obligations (such as protecting rights to life, survival, and development) and procedural obligations – such as ensuring that children’s voices are heard in environmental decision-making. The Committee affirmed that all children have the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, and asserted that States must carry out child rights impact assessments, regulate business activities, and cooperate internationally to protect these rights against environmental threats. The Committee also affirmed that the Convention requires States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to the effects of climate change, and provide financial and technical assistance to other States to do so. 

General comments are highly influential interpretations of core international human rights conventions, issued by UN committee treaty bodies, and are frequently cited by domestic courts and international tribunals when interpreting States’ obligations under international law. General Comment 26 offers a comprehensive interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As the first general comment from a UN treaty body committee focused exclusively on environmental issues, it represents a truly landmark development which signals the ongoing centrality of environmental protection in securing the full range of human rights.