Bringing balance to the international law with long-term perspectives
Karen Moir 1st August 2013

Editor’s Note: This post is a follow-up to an earlier post by Karen Moir prior to the July 4th and 5th conference in Geneva on intergenerational equity.

On July 4th and 5th I co-chaired a conference in Geneva that was hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Future Council (WFC), on implementing intergenerational equity. Over the course of two days, we confirmed a common conviction that something must be done to protect the wellbeing of future generations, as well as a shared commitment to act. Nevertheless, I am concerned.

Despite a core group of dedicated professionals, a laundry list of legal precedent, and the potential for catastrophic consequences, steps towards legal recognition for future generations have stalled over the last decade. As discussed by the Coordinator for Social Watch, this stagnation has coincided with an explosion of international legal protections for corporations engaged in various forms of business and trade. An increasingly apparent struggle between the two sets of priorities and stakeholders—largely defined by unequal access to resources and representation—may explain this distortion.

The impression that traditional legal language is perhaps better suited to preserve private property than to promote collective rights was considered a key factor that has facilitated alliances between corporate entities and national governments, and prevented past efforts to protect common heritage from gaining traction. Another reason for the growing divergences between trade and business law and approaches to intergenerational justice may be the primarily reactive relationship of international human rights law with violations, compared to anticipative bent of economics.

Perhaps the privilege accorded to business over future generations in law is further linked to a general assumption that measurable benefits for constituents of the former will exceed those of the latter. Considerable resources have gone in to demonstrating how protections for trade, investment and business can have a direct impact on the lives of people and communities; while IHRL has only begun to develop evidence that correlates strong human rights protections with improvement to lives of a voter base.

As economic law seems to be loosing touch with the society it serves; integrating obligations towards future generations in IHRL can introduce the checks and balances needed to realign international law with its fundamental purposes of improving lives and promoting social progress. Dominant economic institutions overestimate the benefits of expanding GDP and the uncertainty about what future generations will need in order to justify mass exploitation of non-renewable resources and other practices that endanger human rights—economic discounting reliant on un-invented technology aside. Fortunately, the evolving system of economic, social and cultural rights offers two very helpful approaches to mapping rights for current and future generations: basic needs and progressive realization.

Applied research is now needed to convince those with the ultimate responsibility for implementing international law: national governments. In order to develop an accessible knowledge base about what extending the human rights framework to future generations would mean for people today, as well as tomorrow, I am proposing a partnership with any organisation that is willing to support the analysis of multidisciplinary data on the impact, implications and mechanisms of/for the inclusion of future generations as a recognized group in IHRL.

This will include developing an understanding of the implications of the extension of human rights protections to future generations, formulated in the context of sustainable development. Building on this basis, an exploration of socio-economic-intergenerational trade-offs—and what they mean for progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights—will address concerns about balancing human rights between present and future legal persons. Finally, the research series will examine the possibility of applying the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as an instrument to protect the rights of future generations. Analysis of these three overlapping issues will equip advocates and states with the evidence necessary to integrate long-term perspectives into human rights-related legislative and policy decisions.

Karen Moir is a consultant who supports human rights and sustainable development across the United Nations. She can be contacted for more information on related human rights work via email, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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