Bringing the future into the heart of our decisions today: Guardians for Future Generations

Ditemar Temps / CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
Intergenerational equity and justice is the idea that the decisions of our leaders should take account of future generations (Nomad children in Tibet).

We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote, they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions. But the results of the present profligacy are rapidly closing the options for future generations.
—Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, 1987

The idea that the decisions of our leaders should take account of future generations is one that most politicians are happy to pay lip service to. All too often, however, policy remains framed by the exigencies of today. In a time when governments are increasingly borrowing from their children and grandchildren, the need for intergenerational equity and justice has never been greater.

Firmly embedding long term solutions and an interrelated perspective into governance structures and decision making processes can help solve some of these challenges. However, this is not a simple and straightforward option, it requires interventions which reach past the structures of the status quo. An independent institution, able to look beyond the next election, which is tasked with balancing the short-term nature of policy making processes and providing a broader, holistic response could be the catalyst to support sustained human and environmental wellbeing. A dedicated mechanism which draws attention to and informs a broader discourse in consideration of future generations can help to produce more robust and thoughtful policies, which provide lasting benefits for citizens today, and tomorrow.

This notion is not new—it can be traced back to indigenous, traditional civilizations, for example, the Native American Indian practice of considering the impact of present decisions on the seventh generation. Many communities have experience using a moral authority, or incorporating a conscience keeper into their decision-making to ensure that the consideration of past, present and future, as well as environmental protection, are always taken into account.


Norbet Nagy / CC-BY-NC-2.0
Without the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, a huge straw-fired power plant would have been established in the World Heritage Tokaj region.

When it comes to more recent efforts, the results have been mixed. The principle of intergenerational equity appears in numerous international instruments, both in treaties and non-binding international agreements, resolutions, declarations, and reports. These references to intergenerational equity most often take the form of a guiding or preambular concept in international instruments, generally calling for states to ensure a just and fair allocation in the utilization of resources between past, present, and future generations. Intergenerational equity is similarly reflected in the constitutions of numerous states. There are a few sources in international law and domestic law which refer to the rights of future generations. Clearly the international community understands and articulates what it means to safeguard the planet for future generations and the imperative to do so, although national governments often ignore these provisions.

Equally, the concept of intergenerational equity is enshrined in some twenty national constitutions, some of which recognize the rights of future generations. Considerable judicial attention is now devoted towards “generations unborn” and what intergenerational justice might entail in terms of the legal challenge. Again, there is often a gap between law and implementation. Where greatest success has been achieved is where countries have taken the step of actually creating an advocate, or watchdog for the future, whose real voice in cabinet decision-making is harder to avoid. Many countries and sub national authorities have adopted pioneering solutions similar to ombudspersons or commissioners for future generations, even mandating them to engage directly in drawing up legislation.

For instance, the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations was established in 2007 by the Hungarian Parliament after a grassroots initiative by the civil society organization Védegylet (Protect the Future), and subsequently, the institution enjoys enormous support from several hundred Hungarian and foreign NGOs, churches, and professional organizations.1 The Commissioner was originally tasked to ensure the protection of the fundamental right to a healthy environment,2 examining individual decisions and monitoring policy developments and legislative proposals to ensure they do not pose a threat to the environment or harm the interests of future generations. The Commissioner conducted investigations upon complaints, and ex officio could rely upon access to all governmental documents. The position had the unique advantage of revealing and clarifying many aspects of environmental conflicts which had been pending for several years or even decades.


Massimo Ankor / CC-BY-NC-2.0
A large number of institutions that consider the needs and rights of future generations have been
established across the world.

The role’s mandate included issuing non-binding statements to any administrative body including the Government and, as a last resort, the Commissioner could address the Parliament in the cases when his statements were ignored. After an investigation, he could, as an exceptional measure, order that an activity be stopped or modified and could bring a case to either an administrative or a civil court. The Commissioner enjoyed a broad jurisdiction: he could investigate both public institutions and private companies, and he received and investigated legal petitions from those concerned that their right to a healthy environment has been or is in danger of being violated. The role defined defending the interests of future generations as equal to the rights of people today—placing future generations at the heart of the advocacy and investigative procedures. The task of the Commissioner, in addition to responding to citizen complaints, allowed for monitoring the enforcement of legal provisions of constitutional environmental rights, to influence local and national legislation, and participate in domestic enforcement of international and EU conventions and procedures.

Without the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations:
• A military radar would have been constructed next to the residential area of the city of Pécs
• The gene-bank of Érd would have disappeared
• The Hungarian public water utilities would have been privatized
• A huge straw-fired power plant would have been established in the World Heritage Tokaj region
• A shopping mall and parking lot would have replaced the protected peat-bog of Dunakeszi
• A golf-course and housing estate would have been built on high quality cropland near Páty
• The right of public participation in decision-making would have been violated several times
• The waste utilization factory of the Borsod metal factory would still be polluting
• The Red Bull air race would still endanger protected sites
• No one would be aware that in a kindergarten near Highway M3, the noise and air pollution limits are not observed

The new Hungarian Constitution of 2011 – the Fundamental Law – offers a detailed description of natural resources that should be protected in the interests of future generations, including drinking water supplies, agricultural land, forests, genetic heritage, and cultural heritage of the country. However, from 2012, the position of the Commissioner was downgraded to a deputy, exerting powers only with the approval of the general Ombudsman, to the huge dismay of civil society organizations and similar Ombudsmen and Commissioners from around the world.

Hungary is not alone. A large number of institutions which consider the needs and rights of future generations, of differing remit and mandate, have been established across the world: Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Malta, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Wales. Each of them tells a different story. The Finnish Committee for the Future (established in 1992), for example, is a unique institution, composed of 17 members of Parliament and representing cross-party interests.2 Its primary task is consideration of the future and to work towards the best possible future for the people of Finland. Situated at the core of political life, it has a lot of power—although not legislative. Its primary task is to conduct an active and initiative-generating dialogue with the government on major future problems and means of solving them. The Committee’s goal is not research, but rather policy for the future. It is the only forum in the Parliament where all parties can jointly appraise the development of the entire political system against a time frame that is longer than that of day-to-day politics or a parliamentary term, without unnecessary regional, chronological, or sectoral limits.


Kat Grigg / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Future generations should have equal access to common resources such as clean air, water, soil, and a stable climate.

Sensitive to the national political and social context and the existing governance frameworks and legal architecture, there can of course be no uniform approach to including future generations in decision-making. Yet, these institutions have in common a number of features.

Through our research, the World Future Council has established six defining criteria which position such institutions to achieve successful impact:

• Independent from government, and impartial to external influence
• Proficient in terms of resourcing
• Transparent, with regular reporting
• Legitimate by democratic standards
• Given full access to all relevant information
• Widely accessible to external assessments and citizens’ concerns

These national level initiatives have, in turn, fed into the international debates—and this time there’s evidence that something might stick. The World Future Council raised the proposal for a new UN representative—a High Commissioner for Future Generations—at the Rio+20 summit in 2012. The United Nations Secretary-General released a report on the issue in September 2013, Intergenerational Solidarity and the Needs of Future Generations.3 In the report, the case for action is made very strongly. “The present generations need to understand why leaving the planet to our descendants in at least as good condition as we found it is the right or good thing to do.”

Given the compelling nature of the argument made, the first proposal of the Secretary-General in his report—naming a High Commissioner for Future Generations—seems the most logical. Much of civil society, and many member states would support the establishment of such a role—indicated by the recommendation for a High Level Representative for Sustainable Development and Future Generations which reached the final negotiation table during Rio+20. However, many concerns have been raised over such a role, largely down to uncertainty and a general sense of ambiguity regarding its nature and functions. Given the unprecedented nature of this role, its mandate and operating guidelines require careful discussion. The fact that any position at the international level would be very different to the institutions at the national level has perhaps caused unhelpful confusion. The objective of such a role is to balance the short-term nature of policy-making processes by acting as the UN’s principal advocate for the interests and needs of future generations. It would provide the leadership skills, the moral authority, and vision to develop an agenda in which the interests of future generations are considered alongside present interests. The representative would operate under a strong external focus, working with UN organs and specialized agencies, Member States and civil society, helping to shape current programs and processes. A critical point of entry would be to work with and alongside the newly established UN body on sustainable development—the High Level Political Forum—giving support and facilitation to the Forum’s specific roles and functions, rather than a monitoring role upon members.

The Secretary-General has suggested that Member States discuss the report and its proposals in the second meeting of the High Level Political Forum, which is due to open on June 30 in New York. We certainly think this is a valuable and key opportunity for Member States to properly discuss this agenda, and for those Member States supportive to such an initiative to propose strong, prompt, and action-oriented next steps. Member States should ultimately decide upon the mandate, modalities, and functions of this institution. We would expect Member States—for example, the General Assembly—to establish the office, select, and appoint the individual to take on the role.

This would not be a spokesperson for youth. While certainly any UN representative for future generations would liaise with the UN Special Envoy on Youth and with other agencies directed at youth and children—UNICEF, for instance—this is a role that reaches far beyond youth issues, since it aims to bring a complex narrative and a broader discourse to the UN mindset, assessing the long term impact of policies from an integrated perspective. Secondly, this is a role that must be high on visibility and low on bureaucracy, which is especially important given that the immediate reference point would be the two existing High Commissioners which operate on a large budget with a significant staff behind them. For this new role to be effective, it needs to be externally focused, working with different agencies. This is possible—and indeed necessary—given that an annual budget of $2-3 million would be adequate, with a multi-disciplinary staff of only 5-6. National sovereignty would remain respected since such a representative should not infringe upon or monitor national efforts. Their interventions—based upon a moral authority rather than any hard law—would remain impartial from external influence, and independent from any UN or Member State dominance. The enigmatic nature of strong leadership which is able to bring a broader discourse and a wider perspective of long term-motivations to decisions made today will be key.

The sense that we can no longer stick with the status quo is becoming more urgent in the face of overwhelming challenges, and pressure will build on Member States to act upon the UN report with the necessary ambition and urgency. Implementation gaps at the national, sub-national, and local levels also suggests that there are important roles for guardians or ombudspersons at these levels too.

In conclusion, an important notion when considering future generations is the concept of common heritage—justice to future generations is a matter of equal access to common resources (such as clean air, water, soil, and a stable climate). A critical shortcoming of international law is that the current system operates far behind the present challenges it needs to meet: current international law has better language to address private ownership or the distribution of property than to deal with common heritage. Societies need to foster and facilitate a culture away from individuals making contracts to serve their short-term interests, and rather steward one based on interdependence, across space and time, which includes the trusteeship of a common heritage.

This fundamental approach of justice to future generations is what the World Future Council is promoting and advocating. This future justice starts today.

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