Guest Contribution

The Way Forward: Protecting Future Generations through the Institution of Green Ombudsman

by Dr. Marcel Szabó, Deputy-Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, Hungary.

The Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations (so-called Green Ombudsman) is a unique institution in the whole world. This office was established in 2008 in order to reinforce advocacy for the natural environment and to safeguard intergenerational justice.

            The Green Ombudsman possesses a wide range of powers: it serves as a consultative body to the Parliament regarding environmental legislation, may initiate proceedings at the Constitutional Court or intervene in court litigations in the interest of future generations and the enforcement of the right to a healthy environment. Since its establishment almost five years ago, the office of the Commissioner for Future Generations has revealed and clarified many aspects of environmental conflicts that had been pending for several years or even decades. Although ombudspersons in Hungary have no authority to issue binding and enforceable resolutions, the revelation of multi-faceted legal and technical arguments as well as the identification of possible solutions of environmental conflicts have greatly contributed to make the authorities, citizen groups and NGOs able to resolve environmental disputes. Beyond arranging individual environmental problems, the office of the Green Ombudsman also participates in on-going discussions related to the general issues of environmental policy and environmental law: we regularly contribute to the legislative process by issuing proposals, furthermore our colleagues deliver lectures on environmental topics in Hungary and abroad. In sum, the basic task of the Commissioner for Future Generations is, beyond judging the complaints, to monitor the enforcement of legal provisions that promote environmental sustainability, to influence local and national legislation as well as to participate in the domestic enforcement of international conventions and even in Hungarian decision-making procedures related to the European Union.

            We consider it to be the vocation of our office to reveal and analyse the system-level anomalies through individual cases, and to propose solutions for them. To enforce the right to a healthy environment we have to prepare system-approach proposals for the legislators, while for those applying the law we have to elaborate recommendations at theoretical level. If general problems and solutions take shape from similar individual cases, we formulate universal proposals for both the legal practice and legislation to make them promote effectively the enforcement of the right to a healthy environment. In the framework of our environmental policy activity we also follow the results of Hungarian and international research related to the alternatives of consumer society. Furthermore we carry out research ourselves, cooperating with scientific institutions.

            The versatile activities listed above contribute to forming and enforcing the system approach required by our founders. However we should not conceal the fact that many environmental experts would like to see a more active, more prominent FGO. This is an absolutely just claim, as due to our methodological approach, most of the times we cannot, and in general we do not even want to react immediately to the emerging environmental issues with ready-made statements. The investigation method of our office is time-consuming, as wherever it is possible we strive for comprehensive, profound exploration of the facts, and try to discuss thoroughly our legal and professional recommendations with the stakeholders. Naturally in the cases, where there are plans in preparation or authority measures threatening with immediate or irreversible negative consequences, we have to react within a short time period.

            The new Fundamental Law of Hungary in force as of 1 January 2012 foresees that “natural resources, in particular agricultural land, forests and the reserves of water, biological diversity, in particular indigenous plant and animal species, as well as cultural assets shall form the nation’s common heritage; the State and every person shall be bound to protect, maintain and preserve them for future generations.” The Commissioner for Future Generations (as a deputy to the general Ombudsman) focuses primarily on environmental concerns, however, his agenda also features the protection of cultural heritage and the investigation of bioethical concerns. For example, on of the latest activities of the Green Ombudsman centres around the issue of the fundamental rights concerns of the use of human embryos and fetal tissue for product testing and manufacturing in the area of foodstuffs and cosmetics.

            On the international and European level, there are calls for introducing the institutional representation of future generations. In this process the Hungarian Green Ombudsman is often referred to as the world’s only, or one of the few institutions to represent future generations as of yet. Therefore the Hungarian office of the Commissioner for Future Generations may and would like to serve as a model for forward-looking nations around the globe.

About the Author: Dr. Marcel Szabó is an international lawyer and associate professor and head of department at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, environmental law having been one of the main fields of his professional and academic activities for almost 20 years. In addition to teaching law, he has been using his varied professional knowledge and expertise in the interest of the protection of natural waters, rivers and lakes. He paid special attention to the protection of the Danube and to the drawing up of legal instruments in order to prevent the harmful environmental and natural consequences caused by the diversion of the Danube in October 1992. He participated in the preparation of the Ombudsman’s environment policy recommendation on the development policy and the preservation of the ecosystem of the Danube valley, and, at the request of the National Sustainable Development Council, in a study on the international and European law questions of sustainable development; he also worked for the sustainable use of trans-boundary natural resources. He initiated the introduction in Hungary of the training of environmental managers, made a proposal to improve the environmental concept of the draft Basic Law, and it was partly due to his activities that Hungary’s commitment to international cooperation in the promotion of sustainable development was laid down in the Basic Law.

Posted by Future Justice on 24 April 2013