Speaking for the Voiceless

22. July, 2008

Foto: Michaela Tacker,

On top of being a good futurologist, the ombudsman for future generations will also have to specify what the future generations would be entitled to expect from us.

Axel Gosseries, Permanent Research Fellow at the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (Belgium), Benedek Jàvor, lecturer, Peter Pazmany University (Hungary)

In Budapest, in spring 2000, a few young Hungarian activists set up an NGO called Protect the Future. In the course of brainstorming for ideas one activist, Andras Lanyi, came up with the idea of an institution that could act as a spokesperson for those who are the most excluded of the excluded from democratic representation: that is, for future generations. The measures that our states take for the homeless or for the sans-papiers people are quite inadequate. Yet, states do even less to listen to those who, because they are not born yet, are completely voiceless. Future generations will of course be able to express themselves in the future. However, it will often be too late because some of our actions will already have led to irreversible consequences for them or because we simply won’t be there anymore to hear them.

It was Laszlo Solyom, then a member of Protect the Future (who has since become the president of the Hungarian republic), who drafted the law. This law was proposed to the Hungarian Parliament in 2001, but only passed in 2007. Moreover, it was only at the fourth attempt that the Hungarian parliament finally accepted the candidate proposed by President Solyom. On May 26 this year, Sándor Fülöp, a legal scholar, became the very first Hungarian ombudsman for future generations.

This is a unique institution. A few constitutions in the world have at least mention a concern for future generations, going as far in some of cases (such as Japan, Norway, Bolivia) as granting them rights. Yet, actual institutions specifically devoted to protecting the interests of future generations are very rare, with only half a dozen in existence. For example, the Finnish parliament set up in 1993 a committee for the future. And the Israeli Knesset set up in 2001 a parliamentary committee for future generations – which ceased its activities at the end of 2006. Each of them is quite different from the Hungarian case, be it in terms of powers or of specific objectives.

The coming into reality of the Hungarian proposal results in part from highly specific circumstances. Yet, what is striking about it is the relatively wide extent of the new ombudsman’s powers. For example, he is entitled to call upon private actors to cease any activities that unlawfully harm the environment. He can issue recommendations to public and private entities, the recipient having to answer substantively in 30 days. He may also initiate supervisory procedures regarding decisions of public administrative bodies, (…) initiate the suspension of execution, and may take part in court procedures. On several points, the Knesset commissioner did not have such extensive powers.

This is a promising institution. And it may even produce emulation elsewhere. However, there are also challenges. Let us point to two of them. First, the ombudsman will be very much left to himself. This is not only because he will not act as a member of a commission as in the Israeli case. Rather, it mainly has to do with the fact that he is unable to consult the very people he is supposed to represent. Politicians know too well how convenient it is to speak in the name of future generations, as the latter will rarely be there in time to contradict them. Some politicians in the past have abused this. Yet, what some opportunists may see as an advantage becomes here a real challenge.

Since the ombudsman is unable to consult with future generations, only a comprehensive vision, properly informed by a clear idea of what intergenerational justice requires, and able to trickle-down through the whole of Hungarian society, could be sufficient to guide the action of Sándor Fülöp, and to ensure its efficacy. Of course, he will have to imagine the world in which future generations may have to live. But, on top of being a good futurologist, he will also have to specify, not so much what future generations may wish to have received from us, but rather what they would be entitled to expect from us.

The other difficulty has to do with the substantive scope of the ombudsman’s powers. The law places a stress on environmental protection. Sándor Fülöp will thus need to find out whether he has enough of a margin to end up developing a broader scope of activities, extending beyond matters regarding the environment. It is clear that even if his mission were to be strictly limited to environmental matters, he will have constantly to keep in mind possible interactions with the other non-environmental dimensions of our intergenerational obligations. Here, we may have to think about funding pensions, keeping the public debt at an appropriate level, or developing policies in the realm of health care and education.

As we can see, the ombudsman may end up finding himself both too lonely and with too narrow a mandate. If success is far from being guaranteed, the challenge still remains exciting. We can only say: Good luck, Mr. Fülöp! Citizens all over the world and their future generations are watching you…

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