From May 2008 to August 2012 Dr. Sándor Fülöp was the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations in Hungary. He is president of the Hungarian Environmental Management and Law Association (EMLA), works on public interest environmental cases as a private attorney, teaches and does international consultancy work in environmental law and policy. Sándor has authored numerous publications on environmental protection legislation, e.g. “Environmental protection democracy in the practice. Handbook on community participation for environmental protection and water management authorities”.
Sándor was interviewed by fellow trustee, John Lotherington.
What was the Office of the Ombudsman for Future Generations initially set up to do? And what do you think it has achieved?
Before the new Constitution in 2011, Hungary had a decentralised ombudsman system. A number of ombudspersons were responsible for minorities, data-protection, future generations and general (other) human rights. They worked in the same large office and co-operated on cross-cutting issues. The Office of the Ombudsman for Future Generations (FGO) was created in order to introduce long- run, holistic decision-making. It also handled complaints from citizens and NGOs (about 200 substantial cases a year) and had a parliamentary (legislative) advocacy role.
Additionally, there was also a special third (think tank) function where we tried to identify and highlight new and emerging issues (for example, sustainable local communities, or alternative indicators of social development).
Looking back at that time pre-2011, I think that the Hungarian FGO could successfully fulfil all these tasks. For the majority of individual complaints we could carefully clarify the facts and legal background through an iterative, consultative process and find satisfying solutions. Many of our legislative proposals were positively received by Government and were partly or wholly accepted into legislation.
In what way did the original Office represent future generations, those yet unborn?
Our approach was more pragmatic than philosophical. Our belief was that local communities (as our complainants) are best-placed to know their respective environmental problems. Community procedures can filter out successfully any selfish, shortsighted economic interests and can forge viable solutions for the whole community (‘community’ includes the young and the unborn).
Another pragmatic consideration is that for the near future we have a stronger responsibility than for further in the future (where we share this responsibility with future generations). Many current environmental and social issues can also be considered as intergenerational justice issues.
Did the work of the Ombudsman strengthen the links between democracy and sustainability? Or was it forced to be technocratic?
We were convinced that well-discussed, deliberative decision-making procedures are beneficial for the environment and for coming generations. Arbitrary decisions on the other hand, made behind closed doors are almost always risky, even if at the first glance they serve environmental purposes. Sustainable development questions as a rule are complex and need to bring together multiple factors. This approach is unimaginable without democratic procedures.
Building on the work of the Ombudsman’s Office, how has the relationship between democracy and sustainability developed, and how might it develop in the future?
Although there was an attempt to totally eradicate the Office, the wide social support (including hundreds of NGOs, religious organisations and certain political forces) resulted in a constitutional arrangement whereby we now have an individual Chief Ombudsman with a Deputy who is responsible for the protection of the interests of future generations. The work of this deputy represents continuity with the earlier, independent FGO.
On the other hand, the civil sector and especially the environmental NGOs, are in a difficult situation in Hungary today. They face an unfavourable political climate. Relatedly, I see a decline in the level of environmental protection. The administrative system of environmental protection has lost its relative independence within Government. As far as I can see, they also lost resources and are therefore less effective than they used to be. In such a situation the initiatives of local communities will need to play a key role in ensuring the most possible sustainable futures for our offspring.
What do you see as the key challenges coming up for the link between democracy and sustainability, and what would you yourself like to focus on in the future?
Populism and demagogy may turn people against environmental protection. Both are growing threats in several European countries. Also extremist political movements are usually hostile towards democratic institutions and procedures, and impatient with differing interests and ideas.
I personally divide my time now between teaching environmental law (in a multidisciplinary department together with physicists, economists, biologists and other lawyers) as well as public interest environmental litigation (where I represent only local communities and municipalities, not the polluters). I hope that by reinforcing the efforts of local communities, I can encourage them, and other similar communities, to stand up for their environmental rights, and also for the rights of their children and grandchildren.