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By next Human Rights Day, we need a system that guarantees the rights of future generations

Written by Andrew Norton

​Today is Human Rights Day. Both this year and next it coincides with the closing days of the big annual climate change conference – the ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (or ‘CoP’ as it’s universally known). 

Rather than distracting attention from human rights, this should focus us all on precisely what needs to be achieved over the next year. 2015 needs to be the year that the world’s consciousness changes fundamentally to recognise that the rights of future generations have the same status and value as our own. 

In the words of Alex Steffen: “There is no legitimate basis for thinking that we have the right to use the planet up, that the property rights of our generation trump the human rights of all generations to come.” 

So what needs to happen by 10 December 2015?

  • An ambitious climate deal at next year’s CoP in Paris that will put the world on a path to staying within the 2 degree limit to global warming. This is a primary goal of the UNFCCC process – and will provide assurances to those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change that effective measures will be taken to protect their lives and livelihoods;
  • A new global framework for handling disaster risk which emphasises the rights to protection of the poorest and most marginalised. This should be agreed in Sendai, Japan, in March;
  • A new target and goal set to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which places sustainable development at its core. The Sustainable Development Goals should drive efforts to halt climate change, preserve vital ecological systems and reduce inequality, as well as taking forward the poverty and human development agendas of the MDGs. And – as the Secretary-General’s Synthesis Report emphasises – the fact that this will be a universal agenda applying to all countries takes it into the space of fundamental human rights. As May Miller-Dawkins argued in a recent ODI paper, the striking ambition and reach of the proposed SDG framework also make it much more similar to a human rights agreement in character than the 2000 MDG framework was.
  • An effective agreement on practical action to finance and implement both the SDGs and the climate deal – sealed at the Addis Ababa Financing for Development Conference – in a way that joins up development and climate finance.

When I reviewed definitions of sustainable development for ‘To Claim our Rights’, a paper looking at human rights and sustainability in 2001, most of the definitions had a precautionary character. They basically said, ‘don’t mess things up for those who come after’.  The classic example is this from the Brundtland Commission in 1987: 'Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'

Recent work from ODI and others brings the rights of future generations into a sharper focus. The ‘Development and Climate Days’ at the Lima CoP set out the ambition of eradicating absolute poverty by 2030 (using the MDG measure of $1.25 per day) and setting the world on a pathway to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2100.

Bringing the poverty and the emissions agenda together highlights a powerful truth – that the efforts we make now to realise rights will mean nothing in the long run if we don’t assure that the planet will be capable of sustaining those gains into the future.

Assuring a sustainable future means more than just climate justice. The world will need well planned and governed cities, a determination to halt rising inequality, effective global institutions to promote human security and many other things too.

But confronting the climate crisis can be the means of changing (at last) the way we think, so that the rights of future generations are as compelling to us as our own. By this time next year I hope to see evidence that we are getting there.