By Stephen Leahy
The theme of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is “The Future We Want”, but there is no official role for youth nor a spokesperson for future generations who will inherit that future.
Now there is a growing call for the creation of a United Nations High Commissioner for Future Generations to be one of the outcomes of the summit, which will take place Jun. 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I was born in 1992, the year of the first Earth Summit in Rio. The world has changed a lot since then,” says Vincent Wong of Burlington, Canada.
Wong will be going to Rio+20 as part of a delegation from Students on Ice, a Canadian organization that offers educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic for students, educators and scientists.
“We want to bring the voice of our generation. They will be making decisions on our behalf,” Wong told Tierramérica.
“Who can be opposed to protecting the rights of future generations?” asks Alice Vincent of the World Future Council (WFC) in London, UK.
“The proposed High Commissioner for Future Generations would act to balance the short-term nature of government electoral cycles by advocating for the interests and needs of future generations,” Vincent told Tierramérica.
According to Kathleen Dean Moore, distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, “The injustice of climate change, resource depletion, etc. is that those who will suffer the most terrible consequences – future generations – had no role in creating them.”
“They will gain nothing from the ransacking of the Earth that is going on all around us, but they will bear the consequences: the floods, the droughts, the disrupted food systems, shortages, and violent weather,” Moore told Tierramérica.
“A UN Commissioner for Future Generations can stand up against the unjust treatment of those not yet born, which future generations, of course, cannot do for themselves,” she added.
Nothing like a Commissioner for Future Generations exists in the UN system or at national level, with one or two exceptions, such as the Ombudsperson for Future Generations in Hungary, said Vincent of the WFC, which championed the idea.
The WFC is a charitable foundation based in Hamburg, Germany and London, focused on bringing the interests of future generations to the center of policy making.
Working with partnering civil society organizations, they have managed to have a proposal for a High Commissioner for Future Generations included in the draft of the Rio+20 official outcome document.
As many as 50,000 people are expected at Rio+20, including more than 130 world leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin as well as the prime ministers of India, Manmohan Singh, and China, Wen Jiabao. U.S. President Barack Obama has not yet confirmed his attendance.
The name Rio+20 refers to the fact that it is taking place 20 years after the UN Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, which took place in the same city. The 1992 summit gave birth to three major environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity and desertification.
No international treaty is expected to be signed in Rio. Instead, an “outcome document” will serve as the world’s agreed roadmap to sustainable development.
It will include details for the “greening” of the global economy and possibly include sustainable development goals and a timetable for reaching them.
That “zero draft” of the outcome document has been the subject of intense negotiations. The suggestions and recommendations submitted by UN member states and major civil society organizations led the draft to balloon to 4,000 pages.
The latest known version is 80 pages long, but is still far from being a consensus document. In response to the many disagreements that persist, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened an emergency session May 29-Jun. 2 at UN headquarters in New York to continue negotiations.
The final document is intended to be around 20 pages when world leaders meet to vote on its contents in Rio at the end of the month.
“Our proposal for a new high commissioner has survived, but it has been weakened,” said Vincent from the negotiations in New York.
In the May 28 version of the zero draft, nations only agree to “consider” the establishment or appointment of a High-level Representative for Sustainable Development and Future Generations, which would likely be located within an existing UN agency, not independent.
But is crucial that the high commissioner have a strong mandate to pursue its own agenda, in which the needs of future generations are considered alongside present interests, Vincent stressed.
“We envision one High Commissioner for Future Generations, with a small office (10 people) with a multi-disciplinary staff working in cooperation with existing institutions, agencies and stakeholders,” she added.
With an annual budget of two to three million dollars, the commissioner’s office would offer advice on implementation of existing intergovernmental commitments respecting the needs of future generations.
It would also promote and facilitate participation by the public in the discussion and identification of issues affecting future generations and what the solutions might be, said Vincent.
The European Union is very supportive of the proposal, with countries like Canada, Australia, Norway and Switzerland showing interest, according to Oregon professor Moore. However, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and the hard bargaining and bottom lines will start coming out as the negotiation days dwindle, she said.
As the name suggests, the May 28 version of the zero draft added a new role for the high-level representative as a promoter of sustainable development, over the objections of Vincent and other supporters of the position. The commissioner’s mandate goes much further than just sustainable development, such as protecting cultural heritage for future generations, Vincent explained.
“I have become very suspicious of this combination of sustainable development and the rights of future generations. Continuing development cannot be sustained. What we need is sustainable balance, or sustainable thriving,” said Moore.
Nations need to reject “the Western view that endless economic growth is necessary and good,” she concluded.