22 September 2021
Dear Education Leaders,
I am writing to urge you to support the young human rights defenders within your school should they choose to join the global climate strike for urgent climate action on Friday 24 September 2021. Your support recognises the importance of the courageous actions that children and young people are making to protect human rights, the environment, and their own education in practice.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has stressed that children should learn about human rights by seeing human rights standards implemented in practice, whether at home, in school or within the community. Children should not just learn what rights they have, but also how to claim them and defend their own rights and the rights of others. Protests have been recognised as having a high educational value as they are among the first experiences young people have of public participation and human rights defence. This activity can contribute to rather than detract from children’s enjoyment of their right to education.
Choosing to strike will undoubtably have a short-term impact on children and young people’s school-based learning. However, their actions as human rights defenders in bringing attention to the threat of climate change and their demands for those in power to take action is part of their broader education. It is important that we support those who choose to strike. They must not be punished for doing so.
Last week, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addressed the global community on climate change, stating: “A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is the foundation of human life. But today, because of human action – and inhuman inaction – the triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and nature loss is directly and severely impacting a broad range of rights, including the rights to adequate food, water, education, housing, health, development, and even life itself.”
A key part of education is to ensure that children are supported to develop an understanding of human rights and a respect for the natural environment. A number of schools have taken a positive approach to this issue to enable students to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, participation and freedom of expression in relation to climate strikes. I urge you to respect and support children and young people’s right to peaceful protest.
We should recognise the courage that children and young people are demonstrating in their commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent and acute human rights issue. I welcome their passion and urge your commitment to ensure that they are heard. Children and young people do not have the same political or economic power as adults, but by acting as human rights defenders, raising their voices and demanding change, they are demonstrating the power of their voices.
Over the past three years, young people have played a significant role in leading the fight for climate justice in Scotland and around the world. This has been recognised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, the UN Human Rights Council, and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The Scottish Parliament has also led the way through its engagement of children in the Scottish Climate Assembly.
In 2019, a group of young human rights defenders working with my office laid a report before Parliament entitled Promote, Protect, Defend. The report highlights the importance of climate change as a human rights issue for them. In the report they made a number of recommendations to public bodies, including:
- Publicly recognising the role of children as human rights defenders
- Embedding human rights and human rights defenders’ education in children and young people’s learning
- Protecting children human rights defenders who engage in activism and peaceful protest.
At international level we have worked with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to develop an implementation guide on the rights of child human rights defenders which may be of interest to you. The guide sets out the how we should support and encourage child human rights defenders as well as ensuring their safety.
We have recently undertaken research on young climate activists’ right to protest in Scotland. Young people told us that better climate and human rights education and support from adults and duty-bearers is important in their fight for climate justice. We will be publishing this research ahead of the UN climate change talks (COP-26), which will take place in Glasgow in November. I urge you to engage with and support your students to raise their voices on the need for urgent climate action as a human rights issue ahead of and throughout COP-26, including through future protests.
It is important that when children and young people take these peaceful and powerful actions they are not silenced, discouraged or punished. I trust that you, as education leaders, will recognise the importance of this urgent global issue and will ensure that the children and young people taking part in climate strikes are given the support to which they are entitled.
Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland