Humanity’s future on Earth looks increasingly precarious as we face threats such as runaway human-induced climate change, biodiversity loss, geopolitical conflict, the erosion of democracy, and the unpredictable consequences of rapid artificial intelligence developments. In this context, the question of what obligations current generations owe to future generations has received increasing attention. There is a growing body of academic literature on the topic, increased constitutional recognition of the rights of future generations, and a seminal report released by the UN Secretary-General in 2021, Our Common Agenda.
The February 3, 2023, adoption of the Maastricht Principles on the Human Rights of Future Generations at an expert seminar is an important contribution to these future-focused developments. The Maastricht Principles are the culmination of six years of extensive research and consultations with a broad range of civil society organizations, experts, and scholars in various fields. They follow the tradition of the previous Maastricht principles and guidelines on economic, social, and cultural rights (1986 and 1997) and the extraterritorial obligations of states (2011).
The Maastricht Principles seek to clarify and contribute to the development of international human rights law by setting out the legal basis for attributing human rights to future generations and outlining the obligations imposed on states, intergovernmental organizations, and businesses. To date, a wide range of global experts and current and former UN mandate holders have endorsed the Principles.
Future generations as rights holders
The single most important contribution of the Maastricht Principles is its recognition of future generations as holders of internationally recognized human rights, which contrasts with recent UN instruments referring to “the interests” of future generations. In so doing, the Maastricht Principles recognize that the conduct of those alive today has profound implications for the human rights of people being born daily and those who will be born decades and even centuries into the future. The failure to recognize the human rights obligations of present generations towards future generations magnifies the risk that they will be born into circumstances that make it impossible for them to enjoy a range of human rights, including the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Recognizing future generations’ human rights is supported by foundational principles such as the universality of human rights norms, which apply equally to all people, regardless of the place and time of their birth. Furthermore, numerous international law instruments expressly or implicitly recognize obligations towards future generations, including the duty to ensure intergenerational equity. Lastly, the Maastricht Principles draw upon the laws, customs, and values of states and peoples from all global regions and belief systems that recognize obligations towards future generations. Particular inspiration was drawn from the worldviews and ways of life of many Indigenous Peoples that reflect the continuum of obligations between past, present, and future generations.
Recognizing future generations as holders of human rights generates obligations on the part of states to respect, protect, and fulfill these rights. These obligations include anticipating and preventing threats to future generations’ human rights, protecting and rehabilitating natural ecosystems, allocating resources to ensure the full and equal enjoyment of future generations’ human rights, and establishing institutions to advocate for and represent future generations in decision-making that may impact their enjoyment of human rights.
It also includes ensuring that future generations are able to protect their human rights through national, regional, and international legal systems and providing them with effective remedies for violations of their human rights. This involves securing the legal standing of representatives of future generations before courts and international human rights bodies when their fundamental rights are threatened or violated.
Intra- and intergenerational human rights obligations
The Maastricht Principles also recognize the intrinsic linkages between past, present, and future patterns of human rights violations. Historical human rights violations generate cycles of trauma, systemic disadvantage, and poverty that are transmitted across generations. The descendants of groups that have experienced historical human rights violations are the most vulnerable to rights violations in the future. The Principles recognize that these groups must be prioritized, and states must take special measures to prevent the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage among communities already suffering the legacies of injustices such as slavery, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy.
The Maastricht Principles recognize that states must impose reasonable restrictions on activities that will threaten the enjoyment of human rights by future generations, including the unsustainable use of natural resources and the destruction of nature, to meet their obligations to future generations. As legal scholar Edith Brown Weiss notes, “[t]oo often, long-term costs are accrued for short-term benefits which often go only to the few.” The Maastricht Principles recognize that restrictions on resource allocations and use must be aimed at rectifying the vastly disproportionate levels of control and use of resources within and between states. Accordingly, disproportionate burdens should not be imposed on already disadvantaged groups or states.
Gender equality and reproductive autonomy
The Principles recognize that pervasive social norms and gender stereotypes are a significant source of inequality and other human rights violations. Gender inequality transmits across generations and is a deeply entrenched threat to the human rights of future women, girls, and gender-diverse people. The Principles require states to eliminate all forms of direct and indirect discrimination, including on the grounds of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital and family status.
One of the dangers of recognizing the human rights of future generations is its misappropriation to undermine the reproductive rights and autonomy of women and girls. The Maastricht Principles are thus explicit in stating that nothing in the Principles should be interpreted to undermine the bodily autonomy of women, girls, and others who can become pregnant, including their decisions around pregnancy or abortion and other sexual and reproductive health rights.
Children and youth
The Maastricht Principles also recognize that children and youth are the closest in time to generations to come. They have a vital role in ensuring the protection of human rights throughout their lifetimes and in relation to future generations. The Principles thus recognize the importance of their perspectives and participation in decision-making with respect to long-term and intergenerational risks.
Consequently, states must ensure that children and youth can participate meaningfully in decision-making that impacts their human rights and those of as-yet-unborn future generations. Moreover, the views and perspectives of younger and future generations must be given special weight in such decision-making.
The way forward
Currently, the Steering Group of the Maastricht Future Generations initiative is coordinating a process of publicizing the Principles and mobilizing broad global support. The Drafting Group is also preparing a comprehensive legal commentary to support each principle.
Globally, there are several political and legal initiatives underway with profound implications for future generations, and the Maastricht Principles seek to ensure that these initiatives recognize their human rights. Such official recognition can play a vital role in catalyzing the laws, policies, and institutions necessary to guarantee that our descendants will be able to enjoy universal human rights.