Paragraph 57 of the so-called ‘zero draft’ (the first, un-negotiated text) of the document to come out of this year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development, The Future We Want, refers to the creation of an Ombudsperson or High Commissioner for Future Generations.
Currently the draft would commit states only “to further consider” the establishment of a High Commissioner for Future Generations “to promote sustainable development”.
The text is further weakened by that niggling doubt about whether it’s proposing as alternatives an ‘Ombudsperson to promote sustainable development’ or ‘High Commissioner for Future Generations to promote sustainable development’; whether the Ombudsperson is supposed to be an ‘Ombudsperson for future generations’ too; and what exactly the words ‘future generations’ signify within the text (in other words, what they add to the words ‘sustainable development’).
The Rio+20 outcome document should commit UN member states to a timebound process leading to the creation of a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations by means of a General Assembly Resolution.
In a discussion paper published earlier this week by FDSD and the World Future Council, I make the case for an independent and impartial High Commissioner for Future Generations, plus an associated Office, housed within the United Nations. It really is a discussion paper – setting a direction; designed to trigger further debate.
The proposal in the paper is that the new High Commissioner should have a mandate that is directly inspired by the original Brundtland definition of sustainable development; a definition that provides real clarity that intergenerational and intragenerational equity are closely linked.
The mission that’s proposed for a High Commissioner for Future Generations in the paper is “to promote and protect the interests of future generations in the context of the imperative to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
When it’s understood in the context of sustainable development, there is no trade-off between fairness between present generations and fairness to future generations. But there have been deplorable failings in global and national efforts to tackle inequality and unfairness between people alive today.
In 2012 and beyond, it’s apparent that multiple pressures increase the temptation for ‘short-termism’ at government, individual and organisational levels. The result is a systematic failure to respect the needs of future generations. On the other hand, it’s very clear that the world’s nations have accepted responsibilities in respect of future generations (the paper draws on analysis of nearly thirty references to future generations in international instruments, and since then I’ve learned there are probably at least twenty more).
Many advocates of ‘ombudspersons for future generations’ are inspired by their potential role in handling citizens’ complaints. Get into the nitty-gritty from a ‘future generations’ starting point (rather than, say, an ‘environmental’ starting point) at the international level though and it’s a bit more tricky.
From the start, the High Commissioner for Future Generations should be empowered to receive representations from all sorts of people and groups so that his or her work is always informed by a well-developed network. The more radical proposal is that the High Commissioner might, as the role evolves, seek to initiate a process to develop a People’s Charter on Future Generations to set out expectations of people around the world for a ‘future generations-friendly’ United Nations. That could provide the basis for development of a subsequent complaints function; a set of ‘people’s operating principles on future generations’ for the UN.
International agreements between governments are a bit different: there’s a patchwork of commitments already in place when it comes to future generations. Through analysis and advice, the High Commissioner for Future Generations could play a role in the development of international law relating to future generations. The High Commissioner’s powers and responsibilities should also be sufficiently broad from the start to encompass provision of advice, good offices and mediation in the event that requests for such services are received from states and accepted by the parties to any compliance-related question or procedure.
At the UN level, an early priority for the new High Commissioner for Future Generations should be to lead the development of a coordinated UN-wide strategy for protection of the interests and needs of future generations. Once adopted following discussion in the General Assembly, the High Commissioner for Future Generations would become the official charged with leading the United Nations future generations strategy.
At national level, with the consent of states, a High Commissioner should have a strong capacity-building function in relation to future generations-friendly decision-making; as well as authority to initiate multistakeholder peer review processes either on a country or region-specific basis, or across nations on particular thematic issues related to the mandate.
The powers of a High Commissioner for Future Generations could to some extent be inspired by two existing UN High Commissioners: those on Refugees and on Human Rights. But this needs, also, to be a different sort of institution; one tailored to the current institutional and legal reality of its core subject: intergenerational equity in the context of the Brundtland definition of sustainable development; i.e. intergenerational equity that is inextricably linked to intergenerational equity, too.
The paper proposes fourteen powers and responsibilities to equip a High Commissioner for Future Generations to carry out his or her mission.