Finding a solutionto short-termism and on-going unsustainable practices driving our societies and economies is a major headache for sustainable development.Few innovative ideashave emerged, fewer are being fully implemented and, as a consequence, we are exceeding planetary boundaries, threatening the security and wellbeing of those around us and those who stand to inherit this planet. Could Ombudspersons for Future Generations be the answer?
Finding a solutionto short-term interests and on-going unsustainable practices driving our societies and economies is a major headache for sustainable development.Few innovative ideashave emerged, fewer are being fully implemented and, as a consequence, we are exceeding planetary boundaries, threatening the security and wellbeing of those around us and those who stand to inherit this planet.
There is a global initiative to promote the establishment of Guardians or Ombudspersons for Future Generations at all governance levels to help bring long-term solutions and an interconnected perspective into our governance structures and decision making processes.
So are Ombudspersons for Future Generations the key to protecting the environment and natural resources for young people today and in the future?
They are not silver bullets for sustainable societies but can be important levers for improved effectiveness and coherence of existing governance structures, supporting the transition of our societies through knowledge creation, mediation, awareness raising and reliability in the legal frameworks necessary.
This initiative is not totally new; it comes from ideas and national examples from around the world including Hungary, Wales, Canada and New Zealand. A compilation document of constitutions and institutions which reference future generations can be found here.
Many communities and traditional cultures have experience of using a moral authority, or incorporating a conscience keeper into their decision-making to ensure the consideration of past, present and future and the protection of our environment is always taken into account.
On the international/UN level, however, this is a new role with no precedent, and its mandate requires careful discussion. This institution would be expected to develop the international normative framework for consideration of the needs of future generations. It would offer a political space in which the needs of future generations both social and environmental, and the overriding imperative to prioritize the needs of people, present and future, are considered. Through identification of significant policy gaps or omissions, and providing early warning of system faults, the role would seek to address and remove conditions that encourage inequity and social exclusion. This institution would ensure that this approach is integrated across the UN organs, whilst working closely with national governments.
The range of the competencies is determined by existing human rights, political goals and commitments on which his or her mandate of auditing will rest. This would ultimately be decided by Member States via a UN General Assembly resolution. Thus, a UN role such as a High Level Representative for Future Generations could not make new rules or change the law or have a right to veto. Crucially, national sovereignty would not be infringed upon so governments should not feel threatened by this proposal.
Referring to last week’s excellent blog (“We need to present ourselves as the new generations of environmentalist - intelligent, professional and persuasive”) the Ombudspersons for Future Generations proposal is an example of the sort of stimulating solutions that environmentalists should be looking to emulate. Firstly, essential awareness and engagement of the problem is raised: existing governance institutions and decision making processes failing to address equity for future generations, and then a concrete tried-and tested solution to the identified problem is presented- Ombudspersons for Future Generations. This is a coherent strategy rather than vague rhetoric.
Many governments busy pursuing initiatives for the green economy are missing the fundamental social angle and the governance of such policy implementation. We are again at risk of failing to link the three dimensions of sustainable development, and in so doing, risk repeating previous errors of approaching each issue in isolation. An Ombudsperson for Future Generations would ensure a holistic assessment of the social and environmental angles in the implementation process of greening our economies.
We need an improved framework for strengthened public participation: sustainable development has become a technocratic concept, disconnected from its original Brundtland report definition of
“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Policies may fall victim to election cycles, but solid institutional infrastructure sets a long-term direction. In particular youth are under-represented in domestic and international political decision-making. An Ombudsperson is a citizen representative that acts as a meaningful, decentralised and independent watchdog on implementation building a bridge between citizens and politics.
 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), Our Common Future, Oxford: OUP, 1987 p. 43
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