An interview with Alice Vincent of World Future Council on the Ombudsperson for Future Generations proposal
In the latest of our interviews with key civil society figures on the road to Rio+20, we talk to Alice Vincent, Policy Officer at the World Future Council, an organisation which brings together representatives of governments, parliaments, the arts, civil society, academia and the business world to form a voice for the rights of future generations. It hopes to see Rio+20 commit to establishing an Ombudsperson for Future Generations.
What is the World Future Council's proposal for Ombudspersons for Future Generations?
The World Future Council is proposing an Ombudsperson or High Commissioner for Future Generations under the second theme of Rio+20, 'Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development'.
The World Future Council is an organisation that endeavours to bring the interests of future generations to the centre of policy-making. We identify existing innovative future-just policies and advise policy-makers on how best to implement these.
A High Commissioner for Future Generations would be the official charged with acting as the UN's principal advocate for the interests and needs of future generations. She or he would be an individual with the leadership skills, moral authority and vision necessary to catalyse reflection, analysis and meaningful commitments that can reach beyond the short term of most government electoral cycles. The High Commissioner's Office must be capable of earning the respect and trust both of states and civil society. This would be an agenda-setting role, offering a political space in which the needs of future generations – both social and environmental, and the overriding imperative to prioritise the needs of poor people, present and future, are considered alongside the interests of current generations. As an initial priority, working closely with the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner could work to develop a UN-wide strategy for protection of the interests and needs of future generations for adoption by means of a UN General Assembly resolution.
Our objective is that the outcome document of Rio+20 commits states to a clearly defined process leading to the establishment of a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations.
How would an Ombudsperson enhance the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development and more broadly enhance governance of Rio+20 outcomes?
Operationally, a High Commissioner for Future Generations must be an independent office within the UN. The High Commissioner should report annually to the UN General Assembly on activities undertaken by her or his office and progress and remaining challenges in implementation of his or her mission. This could be through the UN Economic and Social Council or, in the event that it is established, a Sustainable Development Council. The High Commissioner would help to develop the international normative framework for consideration of the needs of future generations. She or he must also point to conflicts and monitor the UN system and its specialised agencies to provide an early warning of systems faults. The office could report on areas where decisions, policies, programmes and intergovernmental agreements undermine or weaken our collective ability to meet the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
It is essential that we close the implementation gaps in the current governance framework. Looking ahead a very practical task for this body would be to follow the commitments and ensure successful implementation of the Rio+20 agenda and outcomes, whether this be sustainable development goals (SDGs), or the greening of our economies.
How can civil society engage with the proposed Ombudsperson in Rio+20 follow up?
The institution would operate as an open door for civil society and citizens: voicing their concerns, taking into consideration their recommendations and bringing them to the heart of the decision-making process. This would ensure that decisions are taken not solely based on a bureaucratic perception of reality but by real concerns of immediate impact on the ground.
Working with all the players concerned in the decision-making processes, on all areas connected with sustainable development, the institution would actually bring more coherence to the existing system, not be an additional isolated layer of bureaucracy. In carrying out her or his functions, a High Commissioner should have regard to any submissions or representations from states, international organisations, individuals and civil society groups, including from the nine Major Groups, thus acting as a bridge between civil society and political decision-making, promoting and facilitating the engagement and full participation of the public.
The Ombudsperson or High Commissioner would create deeper public understanding and evidence of sustainable development issues and long-termism in politics by developing and coordinating UN education and public information programmes and carrying out independent research and analysis in order to promote learning and clarification of the issues faced by the global community.
The Ombudsperson or High Commissioner would also engage with governments and civil society groups to build capacity at national and sub-national levels on matters falling within the scope of her or his overall mission, including through support, where requested, for the establishment of national level Commissioners, Guardians or Ombudsmen for future generations, or for convening events or other forums for sharing best practices.
A High Commissioner for Future Generations is not the silver bullet at Rio+20, but an innovative proposal that could light up and inspire the real world on sustainability issues. A High Commissioner for Future Generations is integral to helping implement the Rio+20 agenda and bringing some fresh thinking to our solutions.
Do you think Rio+20 outcomes will affect change without the appointment of an Ombudsperson?
Yes. I think Rio+20 has actually already affected change by raising awareness and stimulating debate on sustainable development, governance reforms and the 'green economy'. By bringing the words 'green' and 'economy' together we are beginning to alter perception away from growth uber alles and towards the realisation that intelligent, measured, green growth equals untapped investment and new job creation for those savvy enough to take the leap. A strong outcome at Rio+20 will give private investors and business the confidence they need to take that leap.
Improving dignity and prosperity to 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, nature and ecosystems restored and cultivated to ensure fundamental human rights around choice and participation. Otherwise, future generations will face greater suffering than many of the poorest people of today and their numbers will be greater. Working for future generations therefore means defining and implementing sustainable solutions today. There are many exciting and innovative proposals on the table for Rio+20 and I sincerely hope that governments have the foresight and courage to implement these for a better future for all.
It has been said that Rio will fail to come to any solid conclusions. Let us prove those people wrong and work with the political decision-makers to create and sign a firm resolution to put us back on the right track. Cranking up consumption and GDP at the price of natural capital destruction is not just unsustainable but also only a stop-gap, Band-Aid solution to our inherently and fundamentally flawed relationship with the environment.
I hope Rio+20 can begin to redefine this relationship so that future generations – the 9 billion of them that this one planet is expected to sustain by 2050 – stand a fighting chance of having a healthy and fulfilling life, just as what we wish and expect for ourselves.