From a moral responsibility to a rights-based approach
The original definition of sustainable development, as set out in the 1987 Brundtland Report, is about ensuring that sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition is underpinned by the principle of intergenerational equity, which states that the short-term needs of the present generation should be balanced with the long-term needs of future generations.
Because members of each generation share the Earth with members of the same generation and with other generations – past and future – our actions, inactions, decisions, and choices today are interconnected and have far-reaching and long-term consequences that affect the lives, livelihoods, quality of life, and opportunities of those who will inherit the world after us. Thus, current generations have a moral responsibility to act as good ancestors and to conserve and pass on the resources needed to ensure sustainable and desirable futures for youth, children, and generations to come.
Alongside this moral responsibility to act in the best interests of future generations, there is a growing awareness that being part of the human family and sharing a common humanity, future generations are holders of human rights that must be respected, protected, and fulfilled. The principle of equality among generations is deeply rooted in international law, and reflects the recognition that all human beings, regardless of the time in which they live, are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights all recognize the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world – and human rights law has no temporal limit and is valid across the spectrum of time.
Why human rights of future generations matter for long-term sustainability
Long-term sustainability and the fulfilment of the human rights of future generations are closely linked. By integrating the rights of future generations into decision making today, we avoid short-termism and strengthen long-term sustainability and intergenerational equity, ensuring that development efforts are sustainable, equitable, and promote the long-term well-being of society. Caring for the human rights of future generations signifies caring for the sustainability not only for tomorrow but also for today by acting to create the conditions necessary for systems change, which is evolving overarching economic, political, and social systems into sustainable forms, centered around values that are aligned with human needs and planetary boundaries. This is key to fulfil our commitment towards the SDGs. It is also in this spirit that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right in July 2022.
Considering the human rights of future generations does not mean prioritizing these rights over the fulfilment of the human rights and basic needs of present generations. But it does mean balancing the rights of present and future generations and promoting a long-term vision. For example, this could be done by adopting a sustainable approach to the right to development rather than seeking to realize the right to development at the expense of nature and society – and, ultimately, of future generations. Realizing the human rights of current generations is a prerequisite for a better shared future. Injustices and inequalities that are not addressed today will affect the long-term sustainability and the human rights of future generations, just as persistent gender inequality or systemic racial, ethnic, religious, and other forms of discrimination jeopardize the rights of both present and future generations and sustainable development.
How to institutionalize the rights of future generations
But how can we ensure that the rights of future generations are being considered today to promote long-term sustainability? According to the recently adopted Maastricht Principles on the Human Rights of Future Generations, future generations are legally entitled to human rights, based on international law and general principles of law. No new convention or other legal instrument is needed to further concretize the rights of future generations, but rather, the existing legal framework should be consolidated. A growing wave of youth-led climate litigation, including in Austria, Canada, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, and the US support this argument. In April 2021, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that parts of the Climate Protection Act were unconstitutional because they did not sufficiently protect the rights of young people and future generations. Most recently, at the regional level, the European Parliament voted in favor of continuing negotiations on the EU Nature Restoration Law, which would introduce legally binding commitments to restore at least 20% of the EU’s land and seas by 2030.This would ensure a habitable environment for current and future generations where the land and seas continue to sustain lives and livelihoods.
At the national level, several countries have recognized the rights of future generations in their constitutions, including Germany, Hungary, Norway, and Brazil. Norway’s Constitution, for example, states in Article 112: “Every person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained. Natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations as well.”
Some countries have appointed a public representative, or ‘ombudsperson,’ to represent the interests and rights of future generations. One example is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales who scrutinizes decisions in terms of their impact on future generations. The Commissioner is instrumental in ensuring that decisions taken today are fit for the future and aligned with the vision of intergenerationally equitable sustainable development. Interventions by the Commissioner have helped secure fundamental changes to land-use planning policy, major transport schemes, housing, and other public goods.
At the multilateral level, in his Our Common Agenda (OCA) Policy Brief 1 titled, ‘To Think and Act for Future Generations,’ the UN Secretary-General proposed to create the mandate of a Special Envoy for Future Generations to serve as a voice for future generations in the UN system and to report to the UNGA, which could contribute to the institutionalization of the rights of future generations in the UN. Among others, this proposal builds on the Welsh example of institutionalizing the Future Generations Commissioner, a model which should be replicated across organizations, nations, and regions. (The SDG Lab’s reflection on this policy brief can be found here).
In May 2023, the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination also endorsed the Common Principles on Future Generations, aiming to serve as a basis for a shared understanding of the concept of future generations and intergenerational equity.
The rights of future generations should be systematically considered in all decision-making processes, at international, regional, national, and local levels, including by youth representatives, for example, by allocating a seat at the table to young people and future generations. The private sector should be encouraged to do the same, including through economic and other incentives and intergenerational impact assessments. There is a need for greater accountability mechanisms at all levels, such as frameworks and policies, to fulfil our duties to the future. Political and electoral systems should be designed to prioritize long-term thinking, legacy, and behavior, regardless of the length of the term of office. It is also crucial to preserve, promote, and build on Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge systems, cultures, and traditional practices, such as the Seventh Generation Principle in Native American culture, which contributes to sustainable and equitable development and the proper management of the environment in a systemic way.
The way ahead
Recognizing and respecting the rights of future generations is fundamental to achieving the SDGs and long-term sustainability through intergenerational equity. Strengthening the moral responsibility mindset through a rights-based approach is critical to ensuring that the well-being and interests of future generations are integrated into decision-making processes at all levels. This also requires mainstreaming and institutionalizing the concept of being a “good ancestor,” whereby current generations balance the rights and needs of present and future generations.
In this way, we can create a culture and way of life that promotes sustainable development and ensures sustainable and desirable futures for all. As a Native American proverb reminds us, we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Let us act as responsible trustees of the Earth, making decisions in harmony with nature and future generations, and build a legacy that honors the rights and well-being of all.
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This article was drafted by Julia Tscherrig, SDG Lab, with inputs from OHCHR.
This article is a cross-posting from IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub.