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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a press conference just before the march for climate justice in Montreal, on Sept. 27 2019.

MARTIN OUELLET-DIOTTE/AFP/Getty Images

When Greta Thunberg and 15 other kids filed a climate change-related petition under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, their like-minded peers in Canada must have been wondering where they sign up.

The petitioners levelled the complaint against five of the world’s leading economies – Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey – alleging that the countries had violated their human rights by not taking adequate action to combat climate change.

Undoubtedly, the move provoked much eye rolling among adults. Just as, I’m sure, the sight of tens of thousands of Canadian children taking to the streets on Friday as part of an international student climate strike did. Kids these days.

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But it could well be that they are waking up to an unfolding calamity, the depth and breadth of which they are going to be left to confront. By the time the consequences of the climate emergency we now face begin to manifest themselves in deadly ways on a massive scale, the adults refusing to do anything about the problem will be long gone.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international human-rights treaty that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. The 196 countries that ratified it – which includes every member of the UN except the United States – are bound by international law to uphold the tenets set out in the document.

However, children whose rights under the treaty were being denied had nowhere to turn. This was something that troubled a young Canadian children’s rights advocate doing her master’s degree at Oxford University. For her thesis, Sara Austin designed a protocol that allowed children to file complaints against their governments if they felt their human rights were being violated.

“I had worked as an advocate for children’s rights around the world and knew those same rights were being exploited and those children did not have access to justice,” Ms. Austin told me this week.

In 2006, Ms. Austin launched a global campaign to have her protocol – the legal avenue she was proposing – adopted by the United Nations. It was passed by the international body five years later. However, so far it has been signed by only 44 countries, and those who have taken a pass include Canada.

The five countries named in the petition launched by Ms. Thunberg et al are, of course, signatories. So are other countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. But Canada is not. And I’m wondering why we would deny kids the same route to defend themselves under the protections set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child that other countries have?

It’s a waste of time. The United Nations doesn’t have any real power anyway. It will just open the door to frivolous complaints by underaged attention seekers and non-profits looking for publicity. These, I imagine, are some of the intellectual arguments against sanctioning the petition process. And I think they’re dumb.

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Yes, ultimately this petition by these 16 kids will not end climate change tomorrow. But look at the attention it received earlier this week. I’m certain that the five countries singled out were not thrilled with the attendant publicity it generated. Anything that brings a harsh light to this issue is worth it. I also think there is some public shame associated with being identified as a jurisdiction that doesn’t protect the rights of its children.

Maybe that’s the real reason Canada doesn’t want to ratify this protocol – it doesn’t want the shame.

“But I think it speaks volumes that a government doesn’t respect the rights of its children enough to hold it accountable,” said Ms. Austin, who is the chief executive of Children First Canada, which advocates for the well-being of young people in this country.

“All these other countries have ratified the law but Canada, a country that supports democracy and human rights and other protections, refuses to give our kids access to justice when their rights are denied. It doesn’t make sense.”

I was moved by the sight of so many young people on our streets, fighting for the most important cause in the world. They are going to be stuck with the costly mess adults have created over the past few decades, and are reluctant to clean up.

Normally, people would sue over such circumstances. Kids in this country don’t have that option.

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