Duties to the Future
The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies also in the hands of today’s younger generation who will pass the torch to future generations.
The idea that generations living today have an obligation to succeeding generations is one of the foundational concepts of the United Nations. The pledge to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war is its earliest and clearest manifestation. This moral and philosophical current has influenced some of the UN’s most notable global reflections and policy agendas – from the 1987 Brundtland Commission report to the 2012 Rio+20 conference, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Grounded in the 2030 Agenda and with strong connections to the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, which proposes a Declaration on and a Special Envoy for Future Generations, the High-level Committee on Programmes (HLCP)’s integrated strategic narrative also prioritizes the topic of future generations.
Agreed at HLCP’s forty-second session in October 2021, the strategic narrative includes a thematic pillar on “duties to the future”. In their deliberations members concluded that “intergenerational equity” was an appropriate framing for the work, worthy of deeper exploration by the Committee.
A subsequently established Core Group on duties to the future, currently co-led by UNEP, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNU and consisting of 19 UN system entities, was tasked to explore and unpack the concept of “intergenerational equity” as an initial step towards developing future analytical products.
To this end, at its forty-third session, HLCP considered a discussion paper prepared by the Core Group entitled “Duties to the Future through an Intergenerational Equity Lens”. The paper defines key concepts and outlines major challenges and opportunities in going forward, including demographic, institutional, technological, and ecological challenges, knowledge and data challenges, inequalities, skewed political and economic incentives and legal opportunities. It also recapitulates the role of the UN system in drawing on the concept and suggests actions that could be taken forward in support of intergenerational equity. Members of the Committee conveyed their strong support and approved the recommendations set out in the discussion paper. They requested the Core Group on duties to the future to work with volunteering entities to elaborate a plan to pursue the activities outlined, for HLCP’s subsequent consideration.
At its forty-fourth session, the Committee provided guidance on the Core Group’s activities and welcomed the proposal to develop a set of common principles for the UN system that would serve as a basis for a shared understanding of the concept of future generations and intergenerational equity. Subsequently, the core group on duties to the future developed a set of concise principles to help guide and inform the UN system in its work on future generations. The resulting United Nations System Common Principles on Future Generations were approved by HLCP at its forty-fifth session In March 2023 and endorsed by CEB in May 2023. At the same session, the Committee supported the core group’s recommendation to unpack the Common Principles with a view to supporting their operationalization in United Nations system entities.
At HLCP’s forty-sixth session in October 2023, members welcomed the Core Group's proposal outlining its next steps and planned activities, namely,
- a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Duties to the Future to provide conceptual clarity and support a UN common language on complex issues and concepts associated with future generations and intergenerational equity;
- a series of thematic deep dives, with the collaboration of various UN system entities and other stakeholders, to highlight and promote the application of the Common Principles in various sectoral and practical contexts; and
- a commentary on the human rights aspects of the Common Principles, to explore and clarify the human rights dimensions and the interrelationship to international human rights law.
These activities are intended to guide and inform the work of UN system entities but may also serve as inspiration to the intergovernmental deliberations on the Declaration on Future Generations.
HLCP Duties to the Future discussion paper (public)
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