By Professor Jane Williams
Wales has special laws on both sustainable development and children’s rights. How do these two important areas of policy fit together? On the face of it, they should reinforce each other. Children’s rights include being able to live in an environment in which they can survive and develop, so taking care of the environment is surely a way to help realise children’s rights.
It seems it’s not so simple! Research by a multi-disciplinary team associated with the Observatory on Human Rights of Children investigated the international development of the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (‘the Convention’) and also the development in Wales of the laws that frame the Welsh way of giving effect to them: the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011.
Their research, published in March 2021, in an article in the journal Social Sciences, shows how in fact, there is a disconnect between the SDGs and the Convention and, until recently, between Wales’ laws on well-being of future generations and on children’s rights. The two agendas grew in different workstreams both within the United Nations and within the Welsh Government. To give practical effect to both, the research team argues, it is necessary to develop a child rights approach to sustainable development. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales and the Future Generations Commissioner have begun to work together to offer guidance on this to all the public bodies that have responsibilities under the Welsh legislation.
Central to the task is how children are regarded in the conversation, how they are prioritized and how they are involved. The Convention requires, in Article 12, that all authorities ensure that children’s views can be heard, and due weight given to them, in matters affecting the child. This includes matters of public policy as well as decisions about individual children. This is an essential part of regarding children as ‘citizens now’, as ‘beings’ as well as ‘becomings’. Influenced by Wales’ child rights laws, there are many examples of public bodies implementing a child rights approach, some examples of which are given in the Commissioners’ joint guidance .
Welsh experience suggests that given the space and support they need, children prove to be aware and concerned about environmental issues now and the threats to generations to come. This is true not only of older children and teenagers, but also of younger children. The Observatory’s Lleisiau Bach Little Voices work engages predominantly with children under 11. As related in the article, by 2019, so many younger children’s research teams had chosen to research environmental issues that it was possible to convene 4 climate action ‘summits’ bringing groups of primary school aged children together to exchange experiences and to feed views into responses to a Welsh Government consultation on the Circular Economy.
Children, properly recognized and supported, can bring forward practical, positive proposals for change and can inspire others to get involved to make change happen. Normalization of partnership across the ages should be central to efforts to align the agendas for children’s rights and sustainable development.