It is time to accept that children have a right to be political

It is time to accept that children have a right to be political

Aoife Daly

Children and young people such as Greta Thunberg have been visibly active in protesting against the climate crisis. There has however been criticism and suspicion from some quarters of such young protestors. It emerged in January that police advised that those who ‘participate in school walkouts’ should be reported to the authorities responsible for the controversial Prevent anti-radicalisation programme. This action by police (although now rescinded) is an example of a lack of understanding that under-18s have a right to protest under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children’s activism will only increase with the worsening climate crisis, so adults must accept children’s right to be political, and should value it as part of solutions to threats to humanity.

Global climate activism super hero Greta Thunberg has become the face of those working to achieve attention for the climate crisis since August 2018 when she began her school strike outside the Swedish parliament, and subsequently began the global #fridaysforfuture movement.

Lesser-known but equally competent and fervent voices outside the Global North are not acknowledged enough – teenager Aditya Mukarji, for example, who at age 13 began convincing businesses in New Delhi to reject straws (ultimately preventing the use of half a million). Children have long been leading environmental efforts. In recent years Greta has managed however to inspire crowds on a global scale – many of them individuals under the age of 18 – to engage in protest to raise awareness of the seriousness of climate change.

These young people have been widely praised, and have led a movement which has gained momentum in the climate change movement not seen before. As Aditya Mukarji states: ‘People listen more to children bringing up environmental concerns.’ Their success is perhaps due to the arresting scenario of children having to explain to adults the crisis ahead of humanity. ‘This situation is so strange – that the adults do not dare to take responsibility, that it is the young people and children who need to take responsibility’ Greta has said. Children having to explain to adults what is best, when we are so used to assuming that it should be the other way around.

Thunberg has received much praise and recognition. Time’s Person of the Year and Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award were amongst her accolades in 2019. Angela Merkel credits her with changing Germany’s environmental policies, and the climate activism movement, according to a 2019 UK report finding, appears to have had a significant impact on the behaviour of big business.

However, there have also been some particularly unpleasant and personal attacks on children who are taking action and seeking publicity for the cause. One broadcaster for Sky News delivered a monologue referring to climate-striking youth as “selfish, badly educated, virtue-signalling little turds.” Donald Trump’s treasury secretary said that Greta Thunberg can tell us what to do ‘after she goes and studies economics in college’. Greta’s daring tone is one that adults are unaccustomed to hearing from children, particularly in the public sphere and the world stage – “You all come to us young people for hope? How dare you?”, she said at the 2019 UN Climate Change Summit. Her success is at least in part due to her lack of hesitation to loudly and publicly challenge, from a position of relative powerlessness, the deeply harmful actions of those in power.

The most predictable adult prejudice relates to claims that children have been ‘exploited’. A contributor to Fox News, Trump’s favourite TV channel, called her ‘a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left’ (an apology was issued after this).  It is a familiar trope that children who talk about ‘adult’ issues cannot possibly have come up with their opinions themselves. Allison James (e.g. 2011) has long highlighted the ‘ambivalence’ with which society treats children’s capacities; often setting staggeringly low minimum ages of criminal responsibility (e.g. 10 in England/Wales) yet at the same time not taking seriously any views and opinions they may have.

We see this reflected in laws and practice in relation to climate activism. In Ireland police announced that anyone bringing a school student into Dublin City Centre for February’s climate strike protest could face criminal charges if the protest ‘got out of hand’. In Malaysia, in a region where those under the age of 15 are generally legally prohibited from participation in assemblies, the Deputy Education Minister had to clarify that no action would be taken against 11 students who participated in a climate crisis protest (in the presence of their own parents). The school had come under pressure from authorities to account for the children’s actions as, although the assembly was after school hours, the children were wearing school t-shirts.

One of the most shocking reactions to striking children was in the UK, where it transpired in January that counter-terrorism police included the non-violent group Extinction Rebellion on a list of extremist ideologies to be reported to the authorities under the ‘Prevent’ programme; designed to identify those at risk of committing terror atrocities. A 12-page guide produced by counter-terrorism police in the south-east of England made reference to the climate emergency campaign group alongside neo-Nazi terrorism and a pro-terrorist Islamist group. The official guide, dated November 2019, and entitled ‘safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism’, was aimed at police officers, government organisations and teachers who are obliged to report concerns about ‘radicalisation’. These authorities were advised in the guide to be on the watch for young people who ‘neglect to attend school’ or ‘participate in planned school walkouts’, which is a clear reference to Greta’s school strikes for the climate global movement.

The guide has since been withdrawn, with police branding the inclusion of school strikers in such a list a mistake. Nevertheless this incident encapsulates well a common approach to politically active under-18s – such activism is viewed with suspicion rather than as democratically healthy and a right of the child.

There is insufficient focus on the fact that children have the right to peaceful protest under numerous international human rights law instruments (Daly and Donson, 2017); and particularly under Article 15 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which refers to ‘the rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly.’ This includes peaceful protest, which aims for communication in a highly visible manner, and for bringing about change using peaceful means. It is therefore very important for the proper functioning of democracy. It is also crucial for promoting the interests of particular groups of people, such as under-18s who generally do not have the right to vote and therefore are left disempowered politically (Daly, 2013).

Children and young people, in spite of the many ways in which they are excluded from politics, are in fact frequently acutely aware of social justice issues. They have been active in many other movements for social and political change. For example school children were strongly involved in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, were key to peaceful protests against occupation during the First Intifada in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and protested against cuts to social expenditure in 2010 in England.

This is why the criticism of climate protestors is particularly grating. Children’s political action is far from new, and the fact that under-18s’ capacities are still evolving should not exclude them from protest. If competency were the sole determinant of political activity, ‘many adults would also be excluded’ (Flekkoy and Kaufman, 1997). In spite of the many examples of active children achieving significant change, we still fail to associate children with a right to protest (Daly, 2016). If adults do not claim that these children are ill-informed or exploited, we instead frequently focus on them as representing ‘innocence’, or as ‘young saviours. We view them as inherently different to ourselves. But just like adults who engage in this kind of work, these under-18 climate activists are simply acting on something which they see as crucially important, and they deserve to be taken seriously as they exercise their rights to free speech and to protest.

In any case we may as well get used to the actions under-18s have been taking (note for example their recent petition to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child claiming violations of children’s rights). The success of this generation in achieving change in their climate protests – and simultaneously withstanding the pressure of online hate – is probably because they have grown-up in the internet era. As with Parkland students campaigning against gun laws linked to school slaughter, these young climate activists have been ‘effectively born onto the internet and [are] innately capable of waging an information war.’ Unlike politicians, they do not sanitise their message to satisfy a voter base, nor do they fall into the trap of having their attention diverted by online hate: ‘It seems they will cross every possible line to avert the focus…not to talk about the climate and ecological crisis’ tweeted Greta in September in response to yet more personal attacks on her looks and mental health.

It appears therefore that not only do under-18s have the right to mobilise and protest, they are in a uniquely suitable position, compared to older generations, to do this. Scientists warn of significantly worse floods, drought and extreme heat if global warming goes even a half degree over 1.5C in the next 11 years. It is a relief then that, in spite of being the targets of so much adult prejudice, children as climate activists appear to be here to stay.

Daly, A. (2016) A Commentary on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 15: The Right to Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
Daly, A. (2013) “Demonstrating Positive Obligations: Children’s Rights and Peaceful Protest in International Law” George Washington International Law Review Vol. 45, Issue 4, pp. 763-813.
Daly, A. and Donson F. (2017) “Rewriting of the Castle Case” in Stalford, H. et al. (eds) Children’s Rights Judgments: From Academic Vision to New Practice. Oxford: Hart.
Flekkoy, M. and Kaufman, N. (1997) The Participation Rights of the Child: Rights and Responsibilities in Family and Society. UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
James, A.  (2011) “To Be (Come) or Not to Be (Come): Understanding Children’s Citizenship” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 633, Issue 1, pp. 167-179.
Walker, C. (2017) “Embodying ‘the Next Generation’: children’s everyday environmental activism in India and England” Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences Vol. 12, Issue 1-2, pp. 13-26


Aoife Daly is Reader in Law at the School of Law and Social Justice of the University of Liverpool, and Deputy Director of the European Children’s Rights Unit which aims to progress children’s rights through research. In 2018 she published Children, Autonomy and the Courts: Beyond the Right to be Heard, arguing that courts should support and prioritise children’s own wishes to the extent possible when making decisions about them. In 2016 she wrote A Commentary on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 15: The Right to Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly arguing that greater attention on Article 15 is needed to recognise that children engage in political protest. She is funded 2019-2020 by the Independent Social Research Foundation to research how evidence and a children’s rights approach can be brought to how the law treats children’s decision-making.

IMAGE CREDIT: Saph Photography