The consequences of today’s major challenges will extend far beyond the conditions affecting the people currently alive. Bringing the voice of future generations to the table is therefore fundamental. Many countries are already making steps in this direction, creating new roles for official figures appointed explicitly to represent the rights and interests of those yet unborn. Giving such ‘guardians for the future’ a place in more regional, national and global forums is an important step to make sure that the major decisions we face today genuinely weigh more than the mere interests of the present.
Climate change, nuclear threats and the destruction of healthy ecosystems are all alarming signs that humanity is living at the expense of future generations. Yet generations to be born cannot stand up for their rights. It is therefore our duty and responsibility to ensure the well-being of both present and future generations.
Since 1946, the international community has marked the need to recognize the interests of future generations in numerous international treaties and conventions, most recently in the Paris Climate Agreement and in the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. At a national level, over twenty constitutions enshrine the needs of future generations. Yet, short-term interests often continue to take priority over long-term needs. Despite our best intentions, our decisions – or lack of them – continue to threaten the lives of those in the future.
Bringing the voice of future generations to the negotiating table is fundamental. Additional, innovative and far reaching measures that go beyond pure rhetoric are needed if we are to truly deliver our commitments to future generations.
“Bringing the voice of future generations to the negotiating table is fundamental.”
A number of countries have already developed mechanisms to recognize future generations. The need for an Ombudsman for Future Generations was recognized and accepted by the Hungarian Parliament as early as 2007. The office has established a direct link between the interests of future generations and basic constitutional rights, such as the right to a healthy environment and general well-being. A Future Generations Commissioner, acting as a guardian for the interests of future generations, was established in Wales as part of the landmark Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015. The Commissioner works across the public bodies of Wales to help implement seven well-being goals – to improve lives today, and tomorrow. On behalf of the Auditor General of Canada, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development provides parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development. These three offices form part of the Network of Institutions for Future Generations, an international collaboration of similar offices counting 9 members. Other initiatives include an Ombudsman for Children in Norway and a proposed Ombudsman for Mother Earth in Bolivia, a former Commissioner for Future Generations in Israel, as well as Commissioners for Environment and Sustainability in general (Australian Capital Territory, Canada and New Zealand), and a Committee for the Future working within the Finnish Parliament.
As a way to systematically grow on these initiatives, the World Future Council is proposing to establish a new type of public figure: Guardians for Future Generations. Acting as advocates for the common interests of present and future generations, these Guardians could help to introduce a long-term perspective into policy making. They would work as a catalyst for sustainable development implementation and bring checks and balances to political institutions.
These would be appointed at global, national and local levels. The guardian would work alongside government, either as a parliamentary commissioner, a legal ombudsperson, a trustee or an auditor, as best fits each governance structure. They would provide advice, analysis, policy recommendations and facilitate collaboration across the separate pillars of government to overcome short-term, single issue thinking. Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals would be one area of their focus.
As well as seeking to establish Guardians for Future Generations at national and regional levels, the World Future Council focused efforts to secure a UN Commissioner or Guardian for Future Generations. The 2013 UN Secretary-General report, ’Intergenerational Solidarity and the Needs of Future Generations‘, set a convincing case for action on implementing intergenerational justice. The report proposes a High Commissioner for Future Generations as its primary proposal. The role would act as an advocate, offering support and advice where requested, undertake research and foster expertise on policy practices, while interacting with Member States, UN entities, and others. Current UN organs and agencies, including the High Level Political Forum which provides an institutional home for the SDGs, could benefit from additional, innovative tools to fully understand and overcome some of the complex challenges of our time.
As we already live well beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, a fundamental change is urgently needed if lives and livelihoods are to be maintained and cultivated. But our democracies have become a dictatorship of the present, with no-one representing the interests of future generations. Our ancestors thought differently, the most famous example being the Native American principle that the impact of any decision on the 7th generation to come had to be taken into account. Establishing guardians for future generations is not a new idea: rather, it marks the return of a longstanding principle to help build a safe, sustainable and shared future for all.