Guest Contribution

The Opportunity For The High-Level Political Forum On Sustainable Development To Establish A High Commissioner For Future Generations In July 2014

The 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, after intense discussions on governance and sustainability, anticipated the creation of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (“HLPF”) and set out a process regarding the creation of a High Commissioner or High-Level Representative for Future Generations (“HCFG”). The UN General Assembly established the HLPF as a new entity within the UN system to inter alia: provide political leadership and recommendations for sustainable development; follow-up and review progress in implementing sustainable development commitments; and address new emerging sustainable development challenges. In its forthcoming session in July 2014, the HLPF will consider whether to create a High Commissioner for Future Generations. The HLPF should seize this window of opportunity and establish the HCFG in order to advance the vision of Rio+20′s “The Future We Want” with respect to the rights and interests of future generations.

The issue of “mandate” has figured prominently in the discussion over the creation of a High Commissioner for Future Generations. In this regard, several functions can be identified for this new UN Office. The HCFG would have the principal responsibility of providing advice in respect of ways to consider and integrate the rights and needs of future generations into UN activities at all levels. Accordingly, the HCFG would provide views and recommendations to UN bodies on ways to promote, respect and protect the needs of future generations. The HCFG would also participate in the HLPF as well as in international negotiations and conferences concerning the needs of future generations. Furthermore, the HCFG would help identify, learn, assess and understand problems and threats faced by the global community in respect of future generations. In short, the High Commissioner is expected to advocate for intergenerational equity in UN activities concerning sustainable development.

The HCFG’s mandate would be fully embedded within the UN structure. The HCFG would function within the framework of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international instruments of sustainable development and international law. The High Commissioner’s actions would not infringe upon national sovereignty; rather it would enable for the exercise of sovereignty to promote and respect human rights and the environment, particularly the right to a healthy environment, which is central to safeguarding the rights and interests of future generations.

Concerns about the formation and implementation of the HCFG have centered mainly on the issue of power dynamics. The main concern is that the formation of the HCFG is driven by donor governments without the involvement of civil society or southern, developing governments. Another concern is that a new HCFG would give the Secretary-General too much power. These concerns can be addressed constructively. For example, the HCFG could report directly to the UN General Assembly, thus responding to an accountability structure due toward all UN Member States.

Rio+20 intensely discussed the pressing need to establish the High Commissioner for Future Generations to protect the rights and interests of future generations and requested the UN Secretary-General to prepare a report on the issue. The SG’s report identified the strong basis for moving forward and recommended that the HLPF take on the issue. In light of its broad agenda, if the HLPF did not create the HCFG, it would lack the capacity to accomplish its objectives and contribute to achieving the goals of Rio+20. By operating as a focused platform on the rights and interests of future generations, the HCFG would provide essential support to the HLPF, and the UN system as a whole, to further strengthen the political commitment toward sustainable development expressed in Rio+20. The time is thus ripe for the establishment of a HCFG to break the cycle of short-term minded decision-making and to provide a tool for the consideration of long-term perspectives for the benefit of future generations.


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Dr. Marcos A. Orellana (LL.M., S.J.D.) is Director of CIEL’s Human Rights and Environment Program and Adjunct Associate Professor at the American University Washington College of Law.  At CIEL Dr Orellana has worked with NGOs and local communities worldwide to strengthen tools to protect the vital functions of the planet and secure global environmental justice, including with respect to chemicals and waste, oceans and biodiversity, and trade and investment.  Prior to joining CIEL, Dr. Orellana was a Fellow to the Lauterpacht Research Centre for International Law of the University of Cambridge, UK.  He also was a Visiting Scholar with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC and Instructor Professor of international law at the Universidad de Talca, Chile.  Dr Orellana has acted as legal counsel to the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on international environmental issues.  In that capacity Dr Orellana has worked with MEAs and the Rio+20 process.  Dr Orellana has also acted as legal advisor to several International Institutions, including the UN Environment Programme and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Posted by Future Justice on 16 June 2014