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Ombudspersons for Future Generations as an effective solution

To create our common future, we need to have our voices heard through NGOs, the media and politicians. What is missing is a voice with legal authority; a voice with the force of the law to protect our environment and our future.

There have been big ideas and big plans on a sustainable future made by politicians over the past years but action has not followed rhetoric. Now is the time for big reality and big implementation.

Ombudspersons for Future Generations at all governance levels, international, national and local, provide an official champion and watchdog for sustainable development.

Public participation and equity are at the core of sustainable development and need to be strengthened. Young people are underrepresented and future generations almost entirely omitted in domestic and international decision-making processes.

The commitments to a sustainable future made by politicians over the past years are commendable. But we fail to turn them into reality.
Ombudspersons for future generations will help us turn sustainability goals into sustainability reality, and set us on the path to Future Justice by:

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  • Balancing short-term interests of political institutions with long-term interests of society.
  • Taking responsibility for oversight, for making sure sustainability policies work in synergy and are effective in practice.
  • Bringing authority to agreed sustainability goals, holding governments and private actors accountable for not delivering on them.
  • Connecting citizens and civil society with the core of policymaking, providing a formal channel for information on sustainability infringements.

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Each government’s legal and cultural reality is different – which is why the exact mandate of Ombudspersons for Future Generations needs to be developed in that context, respecting these differences.

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Key functions of an Ombudsperson

The institution of an Ombudsperson (the term “Ombudsman” originating in old Norwegian) is designed to be a “representative”. This individual is an official, usually appointed by the government or by parliament, who is charged with representing the interests of the public. Usually, he or she does this by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens. Some mandates foresee independent initiatives by the Ombudsperson and his office as well.

While each Ombudsperson needs to be designed in accordance with local or national legal and cultural reality, comparative international research has shown following criteria to be important for a strong and effective mandate:

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Ombudspersons for Future Generations Brochure
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Independence: The Ombudsperson and its staff should not hold another governmental post that would influence their freedom of reasoning. Ideally, the office should be legally independent and its budget predictable over longer time spans.

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Legitimacy: The office should enjoy large public support, so civil society – if not the driver behind setting it up – should be informed regularly about the developments. The selection process of the actual Ombudsperson should be designed to guarantee broad support. Direct access for citizens to deliver complaints or inputs and to receive information is important.

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Transparency: In order to enjoy and increase trust, the office needs a clear mandate to access all information, and early in the policy-making process. In return, it should maintain open relationships with all stakeholders during investigations and should report regularly about its work in a format that is accessible to all citizens.

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Effectiveness: Research has shown that the “shadow of enforcement” is very important for effective intervention, even if it is not used. The Ombudsperson should have the opportunity to put actions or policies on hold if evidence on the long-term consequences is insufficient. At best, he or she can call on a Court if subsequent delivery of more information is not convincing, standing up for future generations.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][quote name="Dr. Sándor Fülöp" title="Former Parliamentary Commissioner for future generations in Hungary" photo="1317" thetext2="“Even if a decision can be interpreted to be true to the letter of the law, the Parliamentary Commissioner can challenge the constitutional ‘spirit’ of the law in question and suggest that it violates, say, the rights of future generations to a healthy environment.”"][vc_separator][vc_column_text]

FAQs

[/vc_column_text][vc_toggle title="1. How can you talk about future generations when we are surrounded by so many problems for current generations?" open="false"]

Improving the prosperity and dignity of those living today is a pertinent precondition to protecting the opportunities of future generations. Given we already live beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth, this has to be done in an environmentally restorative way if livelihoods are to be maintained and cultivated to ensure fundamental human rights around choice and participation not only for future generations but for current generations also. Working for future generations therefore means defining and implementing sustainable solutions today, and in doing so reversing the visible downward trends in available opportunities that each person inherits today and tomorrow.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="2. How can you know what future generations want?" open="false"]

Being an advocate for future generations does not mean dictating what they want or which quantities of resources or money should be available to them. The world is changing rapidly and one main goal in working for sustainable futures is finally letting go of the myth of linear extrapolations (including Social Discount Rates which argue that GDP growth will elevate purchasing power of future generations and that it is therefore cheaper for them to afford investments for change). Representing the interests of future generations therefore means safeguarding fundamental human rights as defined today for everyone who is born tomorrow – so that these individuals have the opportunity to engage meaningfully in the definition of how they want to live under changed circumstance.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="3. Your Ombudsperson sounds like a dictator – how does that fit with our democratic ideals?" open="false"]

Even though an Ombudsperson is not elected directly by the public it is voted in by parliament after a thorough selection process of people independent from party or other vested interests. Meanwhile, the range of its competencies is determined by the existing human rights, political goals and commitments on which his or her mandate of auditing rests. Thus, an Ombudsperson cannot make new rules or change the law. He or she works to ensure accountability on commitments and identifies and prevents unsustainable projects and policies that would violate them. The Ombudsperson also reports annually to the public and to parliament, raising awareness on long-term goals and fostering broader engagement. If he or she does not achieve a consensual solution through multi-stakeholder mediation, any binding decisions on complaint cases would be taken by an independent court in front of which disagreeing parties have as much of a say as the Ombudsperson him or herself. Thus, he or she actually closes a temporal democracy gap, speaking up for those without a voice today but having to live with the consequences of the decisions taken. Additionally, working with citizen complaints ensures a multi-stakeholder flow of opinions informing his or her point of view.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="4. Why are you advocating for yet another institution? Are there not too many already?" open="false"]

This institution is specifically aimed to tackle the many isolated layers of bureaucracy, the so called silo-approach that often sees policy sectors working separately or even at odds to one another. With a mandate to actively engage in knowledge formation, mediation and providing legislative recommendations, it complements existing governance units, making their decision-making more effective and reliable. Rather than a drain on existing resources, it would bring greater coherence to the existing system, and reduce unnecessary layers and costs of bureaucracy.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="5. Why are you concerned about short-termism and how would an Ombudsperson for Future Generations address this?" open="false"]

In current practice, immediate returns are prioritised over future consequences.  For example, the practice of quarterly reporting for businesses encourages short-term profit making and the externalisation of social and environmental costs. Similarly, current political systems focus primarily on the electorate’s immediate interests and avoid short-term costs to their constituencies. In order to secure prosperity for the future, however, we need to invest in transforming how we manage core resources and services like energy, food, biodiversity, transport, health, education etc. These investments will only pay back later and often have lower immediate shareholder return or voter entitlements. Ombudspersons are impartial and distanced from everyday decision-making processes and re-election worries. They can thus act as guardians of the long-term goals and commitments that were adopted by the United Nations and each member state in order to create sustainable futures for all.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="6. Isn’t setting up yet another institution going to cost a lot?" open="false"]

Current policy incoherence, the general zigzag of our policy making pathway, ex-post rejections and corrections often lead to unintended negative consequences and futile costs in redressing these.  Integrated thinking and long-term time horizons can help avoid these, often even in the short term. A small office (10 people) with a multi-disciplinary staff working in cooperation with existing institutions, agencies and stakeholders is a small cost compared to the savings that would be made by more efficient policy-making. From consideration of existing examples, for an international Ombudsperson or High Commissioner an annual budget of US$2-3 million would be sufficient. [1]

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="7. Will this institution deliver a pain-free transition to a sustainable future?" open="false"]

We are neither assuming nor arguing that Ombudspersons for Future Generations are the single silver bullets for sustainable societies. We consider them to 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. More transparency on the trade-offs behind policy-proposals with a focus on long-term, integrated analyses will help identify convergence of interests and new coalitions. Mitigating the zig-zag course in policy-making of the last decades will help re-create trust in reliable reforms that many investors and citizens (71 % of Europeans) are actually willing to support if these deliver better conditions for future generations [2]. Ombudspersons for Future Generations can therefore act as catalysts in making this citizen will political reality.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="8. What would the mandate of a High Commissioner for Future Generations look like?" open="false"]

Since this is a new role with no precedent, 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 Member States.

The proposed powers and responsibilities span international agenda-setting and leadership (including dialogue and advocacy on matters falling within the scope of the mission; and offering advice, on request, on implementation of relevant existing intergovernmental commitments); multi-stakeholder review; capacity-building for innovation at national and sub-national levels; and fostering understanding and analysis related to the mission. An initial task could be to initiate a UN-wide strategy for future generations via a General Assembly resolution, to help UN bodies consider how procedures address future generations. This should help to build upon and complement existing references to future generations in a large number of regional and global treaties and conventions.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="9. Does the title of this institution matter?" open="false"]

The title High Commissioner may be more helpful to work with than titles such as ‘High Level Representative’ or ‘Special Envoy’, which may pose ambiguity. The scale of the budget and size of the staff of both the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Commissioner for Refugees would, however, not be an appropriate comparison. These are far larger than anticipated for the office of High Commissioner for Future Generations.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="10. At the international level, how would the High Commissioner for Future Generations relate to current UN organs?" open="false"]

A number of options are available for the institutional ‘home’ of this proposal. One option is for it to sit within the Secretary General’s office, reporting annually to the General Assembly, or seated in the proposed Sustainable Development Council. It could bring added value to a proposed SD Council through proactive liaison with other UN organs or affiliated organizations on how their norms and procedures address the needs of future generations. It could also help facilitate the engagement with the public through identification of issues, and liaison at the national level with relevant bodies, and crucially with local communities.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="11. Would the High Commissioner have a veto?" open="false"]

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 General Assembly resolution. Thus, a High Commissioner cannot make new rules or change the law or have a right to veto. National sovereignty would not be infringed upon.

[/vc_toggle][vc_toggle title="12. Does this idea actually work in practice?" open="false"]

This initiative is not totally new; it comes from many ideas and national examples from around the world including Hungary, Wales, Canada and New Zealand [3].  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. You can read about these examples in Ombudspersons around the world

[/vc_toggle][quote name="Achim Steiner" title="Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)" photo="169" thetext2="“The role of an Ombudsperson at the local and national level is an effective institution to act as a representative for those who are today not able to express their interests and also their needs and their responsibilities. It is a great step in the right direction.”"][vc_separator][vc_column_text el_position="last"]

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Click here for a visual representation of the examples listed below and other mechanisms designed to help future generations.

[/vc_column_text][quote name="Peter Davies" title="Sustainable Futures Commissioner, Wales" photo="1315" thetext2="“Sustainable development has been at the heart of the devolution process in Wales. The new Sustainable Development Bill will be an opportunity to introduce a stronger governance model to ensure we can make decisions that are fit for purpose in the long term, promoting social justice and operating within environmental limits.”"][quote name="Dr. Marcel Szabó" title="Deputy-Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, responsible for the protection of the interests of future generations, Hungary" photo="1318" thetext2="I am deeply convinced that nature is a common heritage of mankind and each nation is responsible to do its best to contribute to the conservation of these assets for future generations. It is indispensable to raise awareness and establish the institution of the Ombudsperson for Future Generations all over the world for the effective protection of land, water supplies, forests, clean air, biodiversity and cultural heritage." el_position="last"][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_tab][/vc_tabs][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text] [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_position="last"][vc_column] [/vc_column][/vc_row]