With one of the two main themes discussed in Rio relating to governance, one could have been hopeful that mechanisms and principles are finally considered to ensure that our society can build on better decisions. Governance is one of those concepts that many people refer to but for which we never hear any definition. In the US, judges have a good expression for this kind of concept: “I cannot define what it is, but I know it when I see it”. For those like me who are not able to recognize governance around the corner, one helpful attempt of definition could be as follow…
Governance determines who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered.
Providing better answers to those four questions is thus a large part of the results expected out of the Rio+20 conference. There are several proposals currently being discussed at Rio that could contribute to these questions. Some of them relate to reforming the existing international institutions dealing with sustainability, others to ensuring that civil society can make its voice heard more adequately (I will write a blog about this in the coming days, so stay tuned). For me, one of the key questions to be addressed in Rio is how the interests of future generations can be taken into consideration in our decisions. Are the interests of the future to come not central to the definition of sustainable development?
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland Report, 1987).
Doing a quick background check, one can find the emphasis on future generations reiterated in key UN documents. The UN Charter itself opens with the following commitment:
We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…
While this emphasis on respect for the needs of future generations was not emphasized much during much of the twentieth century, the past decades have witnessed an emerging consciousness on this principle, building on the recognition that our actions have now the capacity to affect many generations after us. Thirty countries have now included in their national constitutions a reference to intergenerational responsibility. Beyond these national examples, the international community at large has also consistently recognized this principle. Doing another quick check, I have found 30 international environmental agreements containing explicit references.
But then the question is: how can we move from stating principles to ensuring their implementation in practice. Or put differently, when can we start to walk the talk?
One could have two approaches to this question: either use the law as it already exists or develop institutional solutions. The legal approach can be based on the claim that this principle has been recognized and should be used by the judges as a basis for their decisions. Across the planet, some brilliant lawyers have gone/are going to court based on this thinking: for instance to save the forests of the Philippines from deforestation or to compel the US government to protect the atmosphere for the sake of the generations to come. As promising as they can be, those solutions have not been yet widely accepted. I am right now attending a high-level conference outside of Rio where judges discuss how justice and law can contribute to sustainability and the concept of future generations is not mentioned once among the many panels scheduled.
Hence the importance of option 2: establishing a mechanism to represent the interests of future generations. Several countries have already experimented mechanisms to give a voice to these interests that would be otherwise ignored: Israel and Czech Republic in relation to future generations, and New Zealand for the environment. Ombudspersons (or whatever you want to call it: guardian, representative…) are a traditional type of institution used to protect the rights of a particular group of people (children, workers…). Their mandates can vary depending on the context: they can have a mediating/judicial role in individual cases or address more general issues by reviewing the impact of policies on the people they protect. In relation to the protection of future generations, the establishment of ombudspersons is quite of an old idea already. Ombudspersons were already suggested at the national level in 1987 in the Brundtland report. A similar proposal at the international level was also mentioned in the outcome document of the Rio 1992 (“Agenda 21”).
So what about Rio+20 then? From the beginning of the talks, the proposal has been supported by a large coalition within civil society, many countries and some key UN organizations. Due to the skepticism of some countries, the proposal included in the draft declaration was repeatedly water down, the previous version of the text referring to the agreement to “further consider” the idea after Rio. Governments could have made the decision already in Rio, but this reference left the door open for more follow-up afterwards. But this was before Brazil stepped in to facilitate the end of the discussions towards the conference at the end of this week. As it proposed its own streamlined version of the text, Brazil simply cut out the whole paragraph referring to this proposal, arguing that some states (Cuba and Venezuela) opposed the text which would make it impossible to reach an agreement at the end.
Much work is ongoing by civil society, and in particular the youth, to convince the delegations in Rio to make sure that a mechanism to consider the interest of future generations finds its way back into the final text. After much rhetorical recognition that the interests of future generations need to be acknowledged, it is due time to make sure that we start thinking about how to make this works in practice. If only a few countries could stop standing on the way, Rio could open the path for interesting discussions…
About the authorSébastien Duyck
Passionate environmental advocate, PhD student (Human Rights and Environmental Governance). Following particularly UNFCCC, UNEP and Rio+20 processes