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Protections for protest

Young rights defenders on climate strike

In the last two months, children and young people across the world have been making headlines by going on climate strike, where they miss school for a day to protest around lack of action on climate change.

By doing this, they hope adults in power become more aware of how serious an issue this is for younger generations.

In February climate strikes took place in over 60 cities and towns across the UK, with an estimated 15,000 children and young people taking part.

And when they they did this they were acting as human rights defenders, even if they didn’t realise it.

“Young people around the world getting our concerns heard”

Talking to young rights defender Charlotte

One of the young people defending human rights in this way was Charlotte, a 16-year-old who’s been involved with the Edinburgh climate youth strikes since January.

When we talked to her about why she went on protest, she was clear about how important she felt the message she’s striking for was:

“I take part in the strikes because climate change is not being treated as an urgent crisis, when it is the biggest problem facing our world.

A recent IPCC report states that – at the rate we are going – in 11 years a rise of half a degree in the climate could significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty— and climate change will be irreversible.”

What needs to change for young rights defenders on protest

Three things adults must do

Being able to take part in peaceful protest is often a fundamental part of acting as a human rights defender.

But younger rights defenders face barriers to doing so which adults are less likely to encounter.

Recently, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner released Promote. Protect. Defend, a report with eight recommendations to adults in power around how they must support young human rights defenders in Scotland.

While all the recommendations are relevant to the country’s young protesters, three are worth highlighting:

Protecting the right to protest

One of the report’s recommendations is that young human rights defenders engaging in activism and protest must be protected from both punishment and the threat of being punished.

Detention after school, the deduction of a child’s rewards or grades, and the suggestion that engaging in peaceful protest will negatively affect a child’s future would all amount to punishments.

To some adults these might seem like small things, but for a school pupil they can be extremely distressing.

People shouldn’t face reprisals for taking part in legitimate forms of expression on important human rights issues. That includes younger members of society.

Recognising young human rights defenders

As someone who went on climate strike, Charlotte thinks of herself as a human rights defender:

“I would consider myself as a human rights defender by protecting our rights— that our views must be considered and taken into account in all matters affecting us.

“Going on protests is a way of the young people around the world getting our concerns heard. The right to live is only meaningful if we can enjoy it.”

But the acknowledgement that young people can – and do – defend human rights needs to extend beyond those young people themselves. Adults in power – like those in the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament – need to publicly recognise that children and young people can act as rights defenders, and that when they do they’re protected by international law.

And when those in power have duties towards young human rights defenders, they need to make sure these duties are met.

Learning about young human rights defenders

Charlotte told us that other teenagers she knows don’t always take her seriously when she talks to them about climate change:

“Right now, when I tell my peers the overwhelming evidence showing the scale of the problem, they don’t believe me.

“There is a big difference between a 16-year-old chatting about the environment and the government or authorities telling us what to do.”

Dismissal of young people’s thoughts and views is common throughout society, even among young people themselves. And young people have told us there’s still a stigma attached to defending human rights.

In Scotland, local authorities have a duty to embed learning about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into education, but young people have told us that in practice they’ve not learned as much about rights as they would want.

Positive examples of children and young people as human rights defenders should be taught in schools from an early age, so that young people like Charlotte are more respected when talking about what they do to promote and protect our rights.