Children left without the necessary protection in environmental laws

Thursday 10 February 2022

Analysis of Serbian legislation from the perspective of the rights of the child to a healthy environment shows that this field is not sufficiently recognized in the legislation in our country and that Serbia must do more to ensure that children can enjoy their right to grow and develop in a healthy and safe environment. The analysis was conducted by the Centre for the Rights of the Child within the project “Children’s rights in policies and practice”, implemented in partnership with Save the Children International and with financial support from the Swedish Government. 

Breach of children’s rights to a healthy environment has serious consequences for the lives of the children. According to the World Health Organization report, between 1.7 and 5.9 million deaths in children up to five years of age worldwide are related to environment pollution, which could have been prevented. Air pollution alone, which has been a major issue in Serbia and the region, and widely discussed in recent years, is responsible for 570,000 deaths of children up to five years old every year, in countries around the globe, through respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

The Law on the Rights of the Child, as the reference law in the field of protection and implementation of children’s rights in Serbia, has not yet been adopted; in the environmental sector, the analysis has shown that a system-wide legislative framework is missing. Thus, the right of the child to a healthy environment is indirectly legislated through the framework regulating different fields of environment protection or other legal fields.

“This practically means”, says Jasmina Miković, Director of the Centre for the Rights of the Child, “that the child’s right to a healthy environment is, at this time, only ensured through the general protection of all citizens and their enjoyment of their right to a healthy environment, which is guaranteed in the Constitution. However, this approach indirectly means that the rights of the child are threatened, as the specificity of children as an especially vulnerable group has not been recognized; environment pollution has far more severe health effects on children, compared to other citizen groups, which means that they require additional protection measures.”

Since the legislative framework is not systematic, but rather complex and insufficiently coordinated, its implementation is not efficient either.

Thus, it is not only that the existing regulations fail to recognize children as a vulnerable group, but the poor implementation of the laws in place fails to ensure even a basic level of protection of children, that would stem from the general protection of all Serbian citizens.

Climate crisis is one of the greatest challenges of our time and it requires the creation of new strategies, good emergency risk assessment and efficient emergency response. The Law on Climate Change was recently adopted in Serbia, but the strategic documents required by the law have yet to be elaborated. The fact that this legislation also fails to recognize children as an especially vulnerable group is another cause for concern.

“The only way to protect children in crises is to make sure that children are taken into account as a vulnerable group during risk assessment, elaboration of the protection and emergency response plan, as well as risk mitigation plan”, says Bogdan Krasić, Program Director of Save the Children in the Western Balkans.  “A few years ago, Serbia and the region faced floods that put many lives at risk. We must not allow the next such emergency to catch us unprepared”, notes Krasić.

Save the Children has recently published their report entitled “Walking into the Eye of the Storm”, which shows an increasing trend of child migration as consequence of climate change and dangers, resource crises and conflicts that arise from it.

“In the countries of the Balkans we are already receiving children and families coming from countries that are at risk from climate change, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. By pointing out the clear link between climate change, environment and migration, this report warns us that we must regulate all that we need to protect the environment in Serbia as soon as possible, and join in the regional and global efforts to protect the environment. In this way, maybe we can prevent children and adults from leaving our country due to pollution, natural disaster threats and crises that arise from climate change,” emphasizes Krasić.

Extreme weather can cause havoc in children's lives, but climate change also contributes to migration through slow-evolving processes, such as drought, extreme temperatures, floods, deterioration of agricultural land. Such events may accelerate the decision to relocate, even if they are not the only factor, shows the “Walking into the Eye of the Storm” report.

Measures that need to be undertaken include an urgent adoption of the Law on the Rights of the Child, with provisions regulating the right of the child to a healthy environment, improvement of the existing legislative framework so that it recognizes and responds to specific needs of children as a vulnerable group and ensures the adoption of strategic documents, but also improvement of the quality of education in the field of the rights of the child, environment, and higher participation of children in the creation of national and local policies. To prepare for the risks caused by climate change, including migrations, we must – among other things – raise awareness of these problems and create strategies to foster community resilience, both to sudden climate shocks and to the slow impact of climate change.