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EARTH AT RISK OP-ED

Six years in the making, support builds for global set of principles on human rights of the future

Six years in the making, support builds for global set of principles on human rights of the future

In February 2023, a groundbreaking set of human rights principles – the Maastricht Principles on the Human Rights of Future Generations – was formally adopted at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The signatories include experts in all regions of the world, among them current and former members of international human rights treaty bodies and regional human rights bodies, as well as former and current Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The Maastricht Principles are the culmination of a process of close to six years of research, dialogue and collective brainstorming, with the engagement of a range of global academic experts, national and regional current or former UN human rights mandate holders, civil society organisations, members of indigenous peoples and social movements. 

The Principles build on the growing understanding that past and current practices put Earth and present and future generations, especially children and young people, at significant risk. 

The Principles and more information can be found here.

Recently, these risks have escalated, presenting a range of threats. 

These include the triple environmental crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, as well as surpassing the “planetary boundaries” due to unsustainable production and consumption patterns. 

Moreover, there are global health risks, exemplified by events like the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as concerns about inadequately controlled new technologies. Additionally, the persistence of war, deployment of weapons of mass destruction, global conflicts and the erosion of democratic governance and civil and political rights in various countries also contribute to these profound threats to the human rights of future generations.

Background to the development of the Principles

In May 2021, the steering group of the Principles, consisting of representatives of academic institutions and human rights organisations, appointed a drafting group comprising seven experts in international human rights law. They drafted a set of authoritative legal principles that seek to clarify and develop the present status of international law as it applies to the human rights of future generations. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Professor Sandy Liebenberg: The Constitution’s Keeper

During 2022, the drafting group conducted extensive research and prepared draft versions of the Principles. These Principles received written and oral feedback through different rounds of consultation, including with about 182 global organisations and experts who joined a virtual platform dedicated to the project. 

The Principles thus consolidate the developing legal framework and affirm the binding obligations of states and other actors as prescribed under international and human rights law. They also provide a progressive interpretation and development of existing human rights standards in the context of the human rights of future generations. 

The Principles demonstrate that the body of existing human rights law does not have temporal limitations: States’ human rights obligations also require them to protect the human rights of future generations.

This initiative builds on expert legal opinions adopted in Maastricht, the Limburg Principles on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1986); the Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1997); and the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2011) and its accompanying commentary.

human rights of future generations

The Drafting Group of the Maastricht Future Generations Project after the formal adoption of the Principles at the Centre for Human Rights, Maastricht University, in February 2023. Standing from left as you face photo: Ashfaq Khalfan (director, Climate Justice, Oxfam America); Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona (executive director, Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights); Miloon Kothari (independent human rights expert and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing). Seated, from left: Carroll Muffett (president and CEO, Center for International Environmental Law); Sharon Venne (member of the Kainai); Sandra Liebenberg (HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law, University of Stellenbosch Law Faculty). Absent: Margaretha Wewerinke Singh (associate professor of sustainability law, Faculty of Law, University of Amsterdam, and adjunct senior lecturer in environmental law at the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development). (Photo: Supplied)

The Principles have been widely endorsed by a range of eminent international law experts and current and former UN and regional human rights mandate-holders. The steering group, along with an extensive network of supporting organisations, is in the process of mobilising international and regional support for the Principles. It is hoped that they will inform a number of significant UN initiatives, including the secretary-general’s planned Summit of the Future in 2024 and the ongoing work on a draft UN Declaration for Future Generations. 

The drafting group is also in the process of preparing a detailed legal commentary on the Principles which will be published in due course in an international law journal. It is hoped that the Principles and their commentary will also help to support various regional and international litigation seeking to protect the human rights of current and future generations in the context of climate change and environmental degradation. DM

Professor Sandra Liebenberg is the HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Stellenbosch Law Faculty and chairs the drafting group of the Maastricht Principles.

Gideon Basson is Research Assistant to the HF Oppenheimer Chair and a research consultant on the preparation of the commentary to the Maastricht Principles.

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