Guest Article #10

Proposal for a High Commissioner/Ombudsperson for Future Generations: Reflections on the Negotiation Process

Why do we need an Ombudsperson for Future Generations? Because we are a very special generation: special in a sense that the state of our environment is on the brink of changing from bad to catastrophic. Special in a sense that we require a new approach to streamline policy to protect our environment, whilst closing the gaping holes in wealth and development equity.

This last month has seen the Rio+20 negotiations touch on the substantive issues of the Summit. It has certainly been a bumpy ride, punctuated by occasional glimmers of hope. The text of the Rio outcome document, ‘The Future We Want,' has ballooned to well over 70,000 words with two hundred pages of text.

The World Future Council is proposing a High Commissioner or Ombudsperson for Future Generations under the Rio+20 theme ‘Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development'. The World Future Council is an organisation that endeavours to bring the interests of future generations to the centre of policy making. We identify existing innovative, future-just policies and advise policy makers on how best to implement these.  Our objective is that the outcome document of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development commits States to a clearly defined process leading to the establishment of a High Commissioner or Ombudsperson for Future Generations.

We continue to take heart from the enthusiasm that many people have for this idea and the excellent support from civil society. Paragraph 57 (on the High Commissioner/Ombudsperson for Future Generations) was initially suggested for deletion by a number of countries. The World Future Council, the Major Group Children & Youth and other Major Groups and civil society organisations have been working hard to allay concerns and answer questions Member States have about this proposed institution. Recent weeks have been spent engaging delegates and civil society in informative dialogue to further strengthen the High Commissioner/Ombudsperson for Future Generations proposal.

A joint workshop of the World Future CouncilUNITARWorld Resources InstituteUNEP and The Access Initiative on 25 March looked deeply at the major governance proposals being negotiated in the Zero Draft. The meeting was attended by over 100 participants and resulted in a thought-provoking exchange on the mandate, funding and institutional placement of the High Commissioner/Ombudsperson institution. A side event on 26 March with the World Future Council, UNEP and Rio+twenties was a second well-attended event that examined this proposal.

A High Commissioner for Future Generations would be the official charged with acting as the UN's principal advocate for the interests and needs of future generations, working with UN organs and as well Member States. He or she would be an individual with the leadership skills, the moral authority and vision necessary to catalyse reflection, analysis and meaningful commitments that can reach beyond the short term of government electoral cycles. This would be an agenda-setting role, offering a political space in which the needs of future generations – both social and environmental, and the overriding imperative to prioritise the needs of poor people, present and future – are considered. In that sense, being accessible to those outside the UN architecture, such as local communities, would be essential.

As an initial priority, working closely with the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner could work to develop a UN-wide strategy for protection of the interests and needs of future generations, for adoption by means of a General Assembly resolution. The High Commissioner must be an independent office within the United Nations, and should report annually to the General Assembly on activities undertaken by his or her office and progress and remaining challenges in implementation of his or her mission. This could be conducted through the Economic and Social Council or, in the event that it is established, the Sustainable Development Council.

The High Commissioner would help to develop the international normative framework for consideration of the needs of future generations. He or she must also point to conflicts, monitoring the UN system and its specialised agencies to provide an early warning of systems faults. The office could report on areas where decisions, policies, programmes and intergovernmental agreements undermine or weaken our collective ability to meet the needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is essential that we close the implementation gaps in the current governance framework. Looking ahead, a very practical task for this body would be to follow the commitments and ensure successful implementation of the Rio+20 agenda and outcomes, such as SDGs or the greening of our economies.

Sustainable development does not, if fairly developed and properly implemented, equal austerity; it equals prosperity for ecosystems, for current and for future generations. With fewer than 100 days to go before Rio and fewer than 20 days for negotiations remaining, the Rio+20 process is moving at a glacial pace. Member States must become flexible, open-minded and courageous, and adopt a long-term political vision in line with the challenges that humanity is currently facing.