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The Environmental Child Rights Conference, a first of its kind

By Vincent Ndagurwa and Ashlyn Chintokoma

Many people might have heard about the recently held Environmental Child Rights Conference (ECRC) without necessarily having knowledge of what it was all about. We take this opportunity to unpack the Conference’s proceedings.Main focus will be put on its objectives and general outcome thereto as well as who the participants were. Apart from that, we will also give our own perspective.

The Environmental Child Rights Conference was held in Harare at Cresta Oasis Hotel from the 31st of July to the 2nd of August 2019. It was held under the theme: “Towards a Children and Youths’ Rights-Based Approach to Environmental Justice”. The meeting was attended by several civil society organisations working on child-related issues, academic institutions and other relevant stakeholders who have interest in children and youths environmental rights; particularly from Germany, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Civil society organizations that were present included Terres Des Hommes (TDH) from Germany, Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, World Vision, Environment Africa and KUWUKA JDA from Mozambique. Academic institutions represented, inter alia, included the University of Munich, Great Zimbabwe University, Midlands State University and Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University.

The ECRC came at an opportune time when environmental damages by anthropogenic factors are rampant in almost every country. These environmental damages are posing adverse effects on this present generation and will definitely not spare the next generation. Through researches, it has been established that whilst negative environmental effects affect all people, children and youths are particularly the most vulnerable. It has also been noted that most international agreements have long ignored a children’s rights approach to environmental protection except the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC). The CRC safeguards the Rights of children and adolescents by explicitly requiring States to take steps to protect the environment. From the presentations that were made by the country representatives who attended the Conference, except for Germany, it emerged that national legislations do not adequately recognize children and youths’ environmental rights.

Further, it is also a common cause that children and youths’ views are rarely considered in decision making processes regarding their environmental rights within the mining, forestry and waste management sectors. Most national legislations and policies do not specifically speak of children and youths’ participation in environmental issues that affect them.

In as far as the issue of children and youths’ participation in decision making processes regarding their environmental rights is concerned, there is a question that we think went unanswered at the Conference. The question is: What is participation? Does it entail consultation as national legislations of various countries allege? Although this can be subject to moot, we take this opportunity to give our own perspective specifically for the participation of children and youths in decision making processes regarding their environmental rights.

Mere consultation of children and youths’ does not entail their participation. For consultation to be regarded as participation, it should be backed by a legal obligation obliging one who is consulting children and youths to abide by their recommendations. In other words, the subsequent legislations or policies regarding Children and youths’ environmental rights for which consultation is made should reflect their interests. That is when we can say there is children and youths’ participation. Unfortunately, this is a rare situation in many jurisdictions. For instance, section 339 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act 2013, provides that a person or authority who is required to act after consultation is not obliged to follow any recommendations made by the other person. In that regard, participants at the ECR Conference were clamoring for legislations that specifically make mention of children and youths’ participation in decision making processes regarding their environmental rights.

It is against this background that the Conference was held with the chief objective to discuss topical issues on the protection and promotion of children and youths’ environmental rights. In fulfillment of this objective, there were a number of presentations, panel discussions and debates. This was the most enchanting part as it formed the gist of the Conference. Participants were very free to speak out their minds through sharing their practical experiences of children and youths’ environmental rights violations and proposing ideas on how to enhance the protection and promotion of children and youths’ environmental rights. It was so disheartening to hear children and youths’ environmental rights violations by mining companies in Chiadzwa from a presentation by a representative from Marange Community Development Trust. A representative from Zambia also shared children’s plight as a result of lead pollution emanating from Kabwe Lead mining activities. The explicit discussions during the conference indicate that everyone is concerned about human induced environmental damages posing negative effects on children and youths environmental rights.

It is quite interesting to note that the participants managed to fulfill the objectives of the Conference. Participants established a committee which will spearhead a regional and national specific Environmental Child Rights youth campaign action plan. Inter alia, the committee will plan on how to demonstrate violations on children rights to a health environment, plan on how to develop and address messages and demands (solutions) to policy makers and decision makers and how to connect and exchange ideas with stakeholders in as far as children and youths’ environmental rights are concerned.

Another interesting point that we want to note is that we perceived that there is no solid platform which enhances effective communication between rights holders and duty bearers. This was clearly indicated by how the Environmental Management Agency representative from Zimbabwe was questioned. Therefore, there is need to broaden such platforms and we hope that this will enhance accountability.

Last but equally important, we take this opportunity to extend our gratitude to those who made the Environmental Child Rights Conference a reality. Predominantly, to Teres Des Hommes and the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association.

It is high time  everyone  preserves the environment for the benefit of the present and future generation.

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