The Hungarian Commissioner for Future Generations was established in 2008, as part of an overarching statute that created an ombudsperson for civil rights, in order to reinforce advocacy for the natural environment and to safeguard intergenerational justice. This was a unique institution, one of the first of its kind to implement and to better understand our obligations to future generations, and to safeguard a healthy planet for both current and future generations to enjoy.
The Hungarian Commissioner for Future Generations was designed to be a ‘representative’ who ensures the protection of the fundamental right to a healthy environment as constitutionally enshrined. This individual was an official, appointed by the national Parliament, and charged with representing the interests of the public.
The Commissioner performed three duties: complaints investigation, parliamentary advocacy and strategic development and research. Investigations were the core of the Commissioner’s activities.
Several key success factors in the law can be identified that promote a strong and effective mandate:
- Independence: The Commissioner and support staff did not hold other governmental, legal or business posts that would influence their freedom of reasoning. The office was legally independent and its budget predictable.
- Legitimacy: Citizens had direct access to the Commissioner to deliver petitions, complaints or inputs and to receive information. Civil society groups played a key role in the establishment of the institution, forging a unique multi-party coalition in Parliament in favour of the bill. The selection process of the actual Commissioner was designed to be rigorous and deliver broad support.
- Transparency: In order to establish and increase trust, the office had a clear mandate to access all relevant information, and intervene early in the policy-making process. In return, it maintained open relationships with all stakeholders during investigations and reported annually on its work in a format that was accessible to all citizens.
- Effectiveness: The Commissioner had the capacity to put actions or policies on hold if evidence on the long-term consequences was insufficient and call for the termination of activities endangering, polluting or damaging the environment, backed up by the courts.
Act LIX of 1993 on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights (Ombudsman), (including the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations). [English]
Act CXI of 2011 on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (updated law). [English] The new Hungarian constitution of 2011, vastly reduced the powers and mandate of the Commissioner.
While the new constitution remained committed to environmental rights, dramatic budget cuts affected the work of the Commissioner’s office. From 1 January 2012 his tasks were overtaken by its legal successor, the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. The three independent Commissioners were made Deputies, changing the way in which the specific fundamental rights could be represented.
Public participation and equity are at the core of sustainable development and need to be strengthened. Young people are under-represented and future generations almost entirely omitted in domestic and international decision-making processes.
Regular commitments to a sustainable future made by politicians are commendable but we fail to turn them into reality. Institutions like the Commissioner for Future Generations help us turn sustainability goals into sustainability reality, and set us on the path to Future Justice by:
- Balancing short-term interests of political institutions with long-term interests of society.
- Taking responsibility for oversight, for making sure sustainability policies work in synergy and are effective in practice.
- Bringing authority to agreed sustainability goals, holding governments and private actors accountable for not delivering on them.
- Connecting citizens and civil society with the core of policy-making, providing a formal channel for information on sustainability infringements.
Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensures that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are coherently considered by policy-makers.
- This policy plays a crucial role in ensuring the enforcement of provisions of the law relating to sustainability and the improvement of the environment and nature.
- The Commissioner’s primary task and raison d’etre is to “ensure protection of the fundamental right to a healthy environment”.
- The Commissioner is given strong powers to undertake this function including calling on any person or organisation “illegally endangering, polluting or damaging the environment to terminate this activity” and call on the competent authority to take measures to protect the environment.
- This policy aims to support a society in which people are treated with fairness and dignity by ensuring the protection of certain fundamental rights, which the Commissioners have a duty to protect.
- If these constitutional rights are suspected of being violated the Commissioners must investigate any improprieties and initiate measures to redress these violations.
- The law also specifically acknowledges the needs of future generations and makes provisions for protecting opportunities for them. The Commissioner can express opinions on any long-term plans, concepts or developments by local government that may directly affect the life quality of future generations.
- Alongside the Commissioner for Future Generations, three additional independent Commissioners (for data protection, national and ethnic minority rights, and civil rights) were established whose mandates cover a broad spectrum of rights.
- This policy aimed to embed the precautionary approach into Hungarian law through the creation of certain duties and powers given to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations. Thus the Commissioner is invited to:
a) express opinions on the drafts of statutory instruments and other governmental motions related to environmental protection.
b) initiate the competent authority to take measures to impede and forbid the activity damaging the environment, to prevent damages and to restore the environmental status preceding the environmental damaging conduct.
c) call on a person or organisation damaging the environment to terminate the activity irrespective of the fact that it is the result of an action or an omission and restore the environmental status preceding the environmental damage.
- If he considers the measures taken or information given as unsatisfactory, the Commissioner may ask the court to forbid the person or organisation to undertake the damaging environmental conduct and/or oblige them to take necessary action for preventing the damage and restoring the status of the environment.
- The very function of this law is to allow citizens to hold public bodies to account if they feel their rights, or those of future generations have been compromised. Anybody may apply to the Commissioner to open an investigation to seek redress if they feel negatively impacted.
- The Commissioner himself has very broad entitlements of access to information and justice while undertaking these duties. The Commissioner may control any authority and may have access to the localities of the authority, including the Hungarian Army, services of national security, of the police and law enforcement organs. State secrets may not impede these investigations.
- The Commissioner may request data and information of any authority in connection with the proceedings conducted by him or request written explanation, declaration, information or opinion of any organ or employee.
- The Commissioner is free to inform the public on the nature, location and extent of environmental damage, including business secrets, and the contents of his recommendations.
- In addition, the law provides for both access to, and the ability to initiate, public hearings by the Commissioner.
- Finally, the Commissioner must notify the person who brought the petition of the results of the investigation and any measures taken. He is also entitled to publish the conclusions of his enquiry.
- The law makes a number of provisions related to good governance, respect for the rule of law, democratic principles and anti-corruption measures.
- Firstly, the law mandates specific new institutions to implement and enforce the law. The law is also designed to create new mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes or the violations of rights.
- It states that parliament shall elect the Commissioner from those lawyers with outstanding knowledge and professional practice who have considerable experience of proceedings concerning the protection of fundamental rights.
- To avoid conflicts of interest there is an exclusion for anyone who has recently (previous 4 years) been an MP, President of the Republic, member of the government, public prosecutor, member of the army, law enforcement or political party.
- Furthermore, the Commissioner must not engage in any other employment or accept any other remuneration for other activities and must not engage in business activities that could influence their freedom of reasoning.
- The law also states that in the course of his proceedings the Commissioner must be independent, taking his measures exclusively on the basis of the Constitution and the law.
- Due to the broad and holistic nature of the mandate, the office of the Commissioner for Future Generations necessarily takes a cross cutting approach, working across government departments and at all scales of society (including making recommendations on the obligatory effects of international agreements with environmental protection or nature conservation subjects).
- Through the Commissioner the law also effectively integrates issues of social justice, environmental protection and rule of law, taking into consideration the environmental and social impacts of development.
- The law takes into account the fundamental inequalities between current and future generations and our obligations to act in an environmentally restorative manner, in the long term interests of those yet to be born. It recognises that improving the prosperity and dignity of those living today, reversing the visible downward trends in available opportunities that each person inherits, is a pertinent precondition to protecting the opportunities of future generations.
- Establishing a Commissioner for Future Generations with a mandate to speak up for those without a voice today recognises that present generations have certain obligations to those who will have to deal with the consequences of the decisions taken.
- The law also minimises costs faced by poor or vulnerable petitioners experiencing a violation of rights by not imposing any costs for the submission of petitions to the Commissioner.
Hungary has been losing 130ha of green land a day (compare this to 90ha in Germany), mostly due to short sighted spatial planning decisions made at Council level, prioritising economic interests over investing in the short and long term benefit of the community. Affected communities, well organised NGOs and others were too often beaten by complicated and long spatial planning procedures where a well-resourced set of interests defended their positions systematically.
Similar environmental problems affected the Danube river which was often viewed as a dumping ground, a lucrative source of energy or a cheap method of transportation. Conflicts within the country on the proper use of the river spanned decades. As many as 17 relevant professions (nature protection, soil protection, agriculture, water management, tourism, traditional small industry etc.) were only finally brought together to discuss the use and protection of large rivers in Hungary by the Commissioner.
The aim of establishing the Commissioner was to install an effective advocate or guardian safeguarding the interests of future generations in any decisions affecting or influencing their well-being.
Protecting this right to a healthy environment also meant ensuring that environmental laws and rules were observed. In this way the Commissioner possessed effective legal means with which to not only influence the conscience and goodwill of society and decision makers, but also to establish the potential for enforcing legal remedy in the case of decisions concerning the environment.
- A large part of the role proved to be enforcing the rule of law for current generations. In this regard the Commissioner was able to conduct official investigations and probes into the notices and petitions he received.
- In the case of the environment being endangered, actively, or by default, the Commissioner could order termination of all damaging practices. If the practices did not stop, the Commissioner could initiate authorial measures, take legal proceedings and could establish a summary offence or criminal information.
- The Commissioner could call upon authorities to carry out environmental measures, and where necessary, turn to the senior echelons of that authority. In order to complete his tasks, the Commissioner could request information and data on any questions related to the environment and its protection.
- Beyond environmental issues the Commissioner’s competence covered broader issues concerning sustainability and the heritage of mankind. The Commissioner investigated issues of cultural heritage, the operation of large social systems, long term development concepts, infrastructural investments and certain aspects of the rate of state indebtedness.
- The Commissioner could also initiate or intervene in the judicial review of administrative decisions. The majority of cases the Commissioner undertook were administrative law, either by complaints, supervising decisions, failure to make decisions, procedures and practices of administrative bodies relevant to environment and intergenerational justice.
The Commissioner pursued some 200 substantial cases each year and delivered some significant victories:
- Prevented Monsanto from taking over the Hungarian agricultural gene pool.
- Prevented about 400 billion forints (US$ 1.6 b) worth of state-owned forest from privatisation, and secured a forest law with strong nature conservation provisions.
- Halted the (further) privatisation of regional waterworks/utilities.
- Exposed that the Hungarian Parliament gave consent to the planning of an expansion of nuclear energy generation without the proper briefing from government.
- Forced the military to seek a new location for a big NATO radar which was to be built in a residential area of a large town.
- Stopped the retail chain Auchan from changing a protected bog into a car park.
The Hungarian model contained many of the elements considered to be key success factors and best practice for this type of institution. It offers significant potential for transferability and as it was originally conceived can be used as an example for the creation of similar bodies elsewhere that are appropriate to diverse national and regional structures.
Several other countries such as New Zealand, Wales, Israel and Malta have developed similar institutions and a number of additional countries are looking into establishing a Commissioner or Ombudsperson for Future Generations.
The original Hungarian law, Act LIX of 1993 on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights (Ombudsman), (including the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations) can be viewed here.
Further information on safeguarding the rights of future generations including publications, a literature collection and guest contributions can be viewed on our Future Justice website.
WFC Councillor Dr. Sándor Fülöp, former Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations in Hungary
Please Visit our website futurejustice.org for more information on our campaign and further materials concerning Ombudspersons for Future Generations.