Youth & Children's Rights

A Voice for Future Generations at the United Nations? Turning Words into Action.

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Many of us are concerned about the lack of a longer term perspective amongst our global institutions and all their processes at work. To overcome this short termism, many have pushed to establish representation for future generations at the UN. The UN’s report on establishing such a representation for future generations is now out, and Chris Bradford, Policy Officer at the World Future Council gives us his perspective.

Reflecting on the UN report on Intergenerational Solidarity and the Needs of Future Generations

The UN Secretary-General was invited at Rio+20 last year to prepare a report on exactly this, and the World Future Council (WFC) followed the drafting process; attending the Expert Panel on Intergenerational Solidarity, participating in the online consultation & facebook chat and hosting our own conference in conjunction with UNEP which we wrote about here

The report, Intergenerational Solidarity and the Needs of Future Generations, is now out and can be found here.

The provides a good analysis of the academic thinking, theories and legal precedents surrounding future generations and of questions of intergenerational justice. It looks at the political mechanisms and institutions that have already been in operation worldwide. Itprovides a balanced approach, touching upon the concerns associated with taking into account the needs of future generations - it is complex after all. However, it builds up a strong case, and the narrative always turns to the need for action and implementation as inevitable.

It notes:

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.” (§11).

It goes even further in suggesting that

small gains for current generations should not be pursued when the actions, with a strong likelihood, can incur large losses for future generations. (§17)

but notes that this should not be an argument placing future generations over current ones:

The fair and equitable distribution of benefits and opportunities among the currently living is one of world’s most difficult challenges. However, addressing the needs of future generations is not meaningful if delinked from addressing the needs of those living” (§15).

Most importantly the report suggests four potential ways forward (Paragraphs 63-67 of the report)

  1. A High Commissioner for Future Generations. The report sets out a strong case for this option and reflects closest to the proposal that went into the draft process of Rio+20. This is the option that we would support.
  2. The second option is for a Special Envoy for Future Generations. We would not support this for a number of reasons. Firstly a Special Envoy is appointed by the Secretary-General rather than emerging from a consensus agreement led by the General Assembly. A mandate that is defined by member states would have much stronger legitimacy and support across the UN. Secondly we would not support a fixed term for such a role, but rather a regular, annual reporting duty to the GA in order to continually review, improve upon the role and its impact, and to provide effective accountability mechanisms on its work.
  3. The third option presented is to include future generations as an agenda item for the newly formed High Level Political Forum (which has replaced the Commission for Sustainable Development, CSD). Once again we would not agree with this option, in this case due to the fact that future generations would likely become one (most likely final) agenda item amongst many others in an already crowded schedule. The issue risks never receiving the attention, and action it deserves.
  4. The fourth option is for inter-agency cooperation. This is the weakest suggestion since it leaves the issue of intergenerational justice on the fringes of the UN and the responsibility upon the shoulders of already overstretched departments. The report itself clearly points out the drawbacks of this option. We foresee an office such as a High Commissioner for Future Generations working closely with other agencies within the UN, but believe in the necessity of a separate, dedicated office as a focal coordination point.

The first option which would entail a small, centralised office that brings the interests of future generations to the heart of the UN, would be the most effective. The report refers very little to the details of the role however - the form and function, including location or reporting duties. Much needs to be considered on its potential mandate. We do not foresee this being of any comparable size and budget to the current High Commissioners on Refugees and Human Rights; we have often referred to an office size of 3-5 people as being adequate, relying on fostering inter agency cooperation. The report quite rightly refers to the concerns of financing such a role, and with a small budget of $2-3 million pa, we believe that it would not present a drain on existing budgetary demands.

So what next? The report calls for the HLPF to discuss the issue in its 2014 session but we think the sooner the better. Furthermore, since the report raises many questions, including that of funding for a potential role, it is the GA which would be the more logical location to open discussion and present a potential resolution.

The UN has presented a number of solutions to be considered, the first option, supported by civil society, must be raised with Member States, and implemented. The overloaded schedule of the UN and the commitments that the global community must show to protecting the welfare and dignity of future generations, surely means that we need a dedicated representative without delay. The report is a good addition to the discourse, but we need to ensure that rhetoric becomes action!

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