June 2012, No. 1 & 2 Vol. XLIX, The Future We Want?

National and international policymaking is inherently constricted to short-term thinking by electoral cycles, and waylaid from a sustainable path by the obsession with profit margins. Heads of Government spend so much of their time defending their incumbent seat that their policymaking is primarily focused on gaining and retaining votes. The electorate, i.e., people over the age of 18, misses out a substantial chunk of the demographic—namely, those under 18, the generations that are yet unborn, and the generations deceased. As the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: "[Society is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."1 Society is not, as it has become, a game of political horse-trading between the ruling party and the opposition which tries to court capricious swing voters.

The 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, presents Governments and civil society with the occasion to right this unsustainable wrongdoing in policymaking. While this Conference gives us the chance to assess the progress made on sustainable development, let us not look only backward, for it is also an opportunity to shape a new agenda, make bold moves, and implement fresh ideas. In a crisis, it is sometimes easier to take big steps than small ones, as dire situations demand fundamental change, not simply minor amendments to the status quo.

Sustainable development has been recognized as an overarching goal for institutions at the national, regional, and international levels. Sustainable development will, however, only become a reality with the full and equal consideration of all its three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. Environmental and social concerns are currently often disregarded or undermined by economic motivations and, as a consequence, externalization of costs and false trade-offs are presented.

Although teetering economies may be at the forefront of people's minds and serve as a ready excuse to delay long-term environmental and social action, the issues are inextricably linked. This planet has a fragile ecosystem and a finite supply of resources. It must be realized and acted upon as these planetary boundaries present a serious financial and social reality, not only an environmental one. To ensure that this reality is not blindsided by short-term interests, electoral distractions, or tempting profiteering and short-cuts, an institution must be created that is mandated to take the longer view.

The World Future Council is calling for Ombudspersons for Future Generations at all governance levels, and has created a proposal to elevate the institution of a Parliamentary Commissioner or Ombudsperson for Future Generations to the international level by calling for the implementation of a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations as a concrete proposal under the second theme of Rio+20: Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development. This article will discuss why this institution at the international, regional, and national levels is relevant as a solution for Rio+20.

Examples of this institution on a national level are already in existence. The office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations in Hungary was created in 2007 to safeguard the right to a healthy environment, as written in the Hungarian Constitution. In May 2008, Dr. Sándor Fülöp was elected for a six-year term and, since being in office, has succeeded in protecting Hungary's plant gene bank from takeover by a multinational corporation, preventing the privatization of Hungarian public water utilities, and protecting the Tokaj region, a World Heritage site, from the development of a straw-fired power plant, to name but a few.

The new Hungarian Constitution of 2011 offers a detailed description of natural resources that should be protected in the interests of future generations. However, in 2012, the position of Commissioner was downgraded to Deputy Ombudsperson.

The Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations is one of four Parliamentary Ombudsmen. The office is mandated to investigate a broad range of environmental complaints, to act as a policy advocate for sustainability issues across all relevant fields of national and local legislation and public policy, and to undertake research projects targeting the long-term sustainability of human societies. Similar institutions with varying mandate strength also exist in Finland, New Zealand and Wales.

The World Future Council works to bring the interests of future generations to the centre of policymaking. We inform policymakers about future just policies and advise them on how to implement these. The Hungarian example is a tested institutional mechanism that holistically assesses or future-proofs policies, vetting them against the needs of both current and future generations. Interventions are based upon complaints and concerns from individual stakeholders or non-governmental organizations, and local communities. This institution works at the heart of the state system, whilst independent from the administrative power. This means the office is not restricted to electoral cycles.

The proposal for an international Ombudsperson or High Commissioner for Future Generations is included in paragraph 57 of The Future We Want -- the "Zero" draft of the official document being negotiated by UN Member States in the lead up to Rio+20. Many Member States and UN institutions are considering this proposal and the potential it can offer. Malta suggested the appointment of a guardian for future generations at the Earth Summit in 1992. The proposal was put forward by then Foreign Minister Guido de Marco, but failed to make it into the final declaration. Currently, as part of its national Sustainable Development Bill, Malta is making a recommendation for a national Guardian for Future Generations.

Role and Functions

Taking into account existing governance frameworks and legal architecture, there can be no uniform approach, nor identical institutions from one country to the next. Similar institutions which are already in place should be reformed or strengthened as necessary. However, for these institutions to be effective, attention must be given to a core set of principles upon which they must be based. These principles are drawn from our understanding of existing good practice. They should address the requirements of the separation of powers. This means they should be independent of government, while working to increase political accountability, thus reducing the risk of political and economic costs for present and future generations. We define six criteria for these institutions to achieve a successful impact. They must be:

• independent;

• proficient, in terms of having a staff equipped with a full multidisciplinary background;

• transparent;

• democratically legitimate;

• given full access to all relevant information;

• widely accessible to external assessments and citizens concerns.

We identify a number of roles for these institutions:

• be responsive to citizens, thus increasing trust in policy implementation and Government accountability and combating high levels of political apathy;

• remain informed and help engage decision makers and the general public;

• facilitate coherence between separate pillars of government;

• hold government departments and private actors accountable;

• balance short-term interests with long-term interests of society as a whole.

Functions of an International High Commissioner for Future Generations

On the international level, the term "High Commissioner" is more familiar in the UN context than Ombudsperson. For example, we already have the Human Rights Council and related office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, and this could provide a helpful model to explore in our discussions. We would expect a High Commissioner for Future Generations to be allowed space and attention within the United Nations work and programmes to deliver global governance for the long term.2

Developing an institution to protect the interests of future generations would by no means be a prioritization of people's future needs over their current ones. The mission of the High Commissioner for Future Generations should be to promote and protect the interests of future generations in the context of meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, in line with the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development. The institution would enjoy an agenda-setting role, engaging Governments and the public in learning and understanding the challenges faced by the global community in relation to future generations. This would encourage greater accountability by UN Member States to agree and implement long-term policies and, in so doing, promote a stronger attention to sustainability.

The role would also provide the key initiative for monitoring the United Nations and its related specialized agencies, including the secretariats of multilateral environment agreements, so that an integrated approach to issues is taken at the highest level of decision making, policies, programmes and multilateral agreements. In that sense, the High Commissioner would act as an advocate for the interests of future generations across UN organizations and affiliated agencies, as well as with other key global institutions. Annual reporting to the General Assembly on their activities would provide the opportunity to highlight progress made, and point to the challenges still to be met, thus providing further space for debate and raising awareness. The work of the High Commissioner could, of course, be closely related to the proposed Sustainable Development Council, but it is important that it is not seen as a personal initiative of any particular Secretary-General. As we have remarked at the national level, an independent office within the United Nations is critical.

The Office of High Commissioner for Future Generations should operate in close cooperation with civil society and the public, encouraging and facilitating their full participation and engagement to help ensure their representation in relevant processes, and to consider any of their formal submissions to the United Nations.

Finally, we would expect that the High Commissioner, on request from Governments or civil society groups, help facilitate international policy through to national implementation, by coordination with relevant national bodies, such as with national Ombudspersons for Future Generations, where they exist. It may be possible for the High Commissioner to provide support to establish national, regional, or local Ombudspersons for Future Generations.

This institution would work in tandem with the green economy and a new set of sustainable development goals by providing the necessary effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms to address the large governance gap which has yet to be addressed within the existing UN architecture. Proposals on the table to reform the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) would help to strengthen the environmental agenda, and the consideration of a Sustainable Development Council would help strengthen and raise the importance of sustainable issues in general. However, only a High Commissioner would be able to help provide the leadership, access, and, most importantly, integration of the interests of future generations with the work and structure of the United Nations. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on 20 February 2012 to the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum: "The moment is ripe to advance the agenda of sustainable development from theory and uneven progress to decisive implementation."

With thanks to Catherine Pearce for her contributions.


1 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, paras. 150-174.

2 These thoughts are taken from a joint paper of the World Future Council and the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, 2012, http://www.futurejustice.org/assets/UN-High-commissioner-for-FGs-mandate...