United Nations for the future - a collection of key international texts for long-term governance

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Future generations are front and center of many foundational international governance texts. Yet, consideration of their interests regularly falls into oblivion because short-term problems captivate our limited attention.

With this collection, we aim to:

  1. Highlight fertile ground for the refinement of a shared understanding of the long term, building on decades of diplomacy that have successfully made long-term flourishing a key formal motivation for international cooperation;
  2. Provide a living repository of historical framings, quotes and references for communication, training and research on long-term governance;
  3. Lay the groundwork for practical research on how these texts are currently interpreted and what can be done to strengthen their implementation by, e.g. clarifying timelines or resolving conceptual tensions and gaps; and
  4. Eloquently remind ourselves of the recency of international institutions, the hopeful vision their progress conveys and the work that remains to be done to secure long-term survival and flourishing.
  • Almost all texts exclusively reference “humans” as moral patients, despite there being many more animals with morally relevant subjective conscious experience. In the future, there might be even more diverse conscious beings whose lives humans ought to protect.
  • While the possibility of extreme risks is routinely acknowledged, the gravity of existential threats and thus the importance of prioritizing their mitigation mostly seems drowned out by the breadth of problems humanity is facing and a need for inclusion to ensure the continuous development of international cooperation.
  • Many texts highlight poverty alleviation as the top priority for development in the name of current and future generations, neglecting that we simultaneously need to safeguard our future capacity to further foster well-being.
  • Some texts implicitly treat the planet as intrinsically valuable, not just people (or other beings). One might ask what value the planet would have without conscious life reveling in its magnificence? This shift appears to be a more recent trend away from overly human-centric thinking.
  • Current international efforts were born from the trauma of the two world wars. Some texts highlight the goal of protecting future generations from the horrors of war and not from horrors in general. There remains a need to continue to actively refocus international efforts without, of course, forgetting the persisting risk of great power conflict.
  • Most texts clearly acknowledge that earthly resources currently impose bounds on the development of civilization. The possibility to overcome planetary bounds, however, seems to be neglected - despite advances in engineering that could enable, for example, atomically precise manufacturing or the expansion to other planets.

Selected documents

The following, non-exhaustive selection of particularly relevant texts is ordered chronologically with a short commentary on each item’s significance, key passages emphasized in bold and a link to the original in the header. To start with the collection, we surveyed experts in our network and searched the UN Library looking for mentions of the terms “future”, “succeeding generations” and “future generations” in declarations. From there, we traced down additional references. We welcome suggestions for further additions.

Update log: 2021-07-18 - added: “Moon Treaty”.

1941 The Atlantic Charter

The concept of international peace and security in the UN Charter began to develop with the ideas expressed in this joint declaration of principles, motivated as follows:

The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future of the world.

1945 UN Charter

On 26 June 1945, the founding document of the United Nations was signed by representatives of the 50 countries attending the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco. Its motivation is clear:

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED

to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom

1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment

Sweden first suggested the idea of having a UN conference to focus on human interactions with the environment to the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC in 1968. Preparations for the conference were extensive, lasting 4 years, including 114 governments, and costing over $30,000,000.1 The resulting declaration initiated the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and contains a clear-headed vision of what would later become known as “sustainable development”:

Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet a stage has been reached when, through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights - even the right to life itself.

[…] In our time, man’s capability to transform his surroundings, if used wisely, can bring to all peoples the benefits of development and the opportunity to enhance the quality of life. Wrongly or heedlessly applied, the same power can do incalculable harm to human beings and the human environment. We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth: dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere; destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources; and gross deficiencies, harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment, particularly in the living and working environment.

[…] Of all things in the world, people are the most precious. It is the people that propel social progress, create social wealth, develop science and technology and, through their hard work, continuously transform the human environment. Along with social progress and the advance of production, science and technology, the capability of man to improve the environment increases with each passing day.

[…] through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes. There are broad vistas for the enhancement of environmental quality and the creation of a good life. What is needed is an enthusiastic but calm state of mind and intense but orderly work. For the purpose of attaining freedom in the world of nature, man must use knowledge to build, in collaboration with nature, a better environment. To defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations has become an imperative goal for mankind

1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies

Building on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, this treaty attempts to make all activity in space subject to international law. However, only 18 states have ratified the treaty to date, none of them operating space missions. Its text is an interesting glimpse into how the UN General Assembly can, in theory, agree that earthly competition seems well outdated.

The exploration and use of the moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development. Due regard shall be paid to the interests of present and future generations as well as to the need to promote higher standards of living and conditions of economic and social progress and development in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

1987 IPCC Founding Motion by UNEP

Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the objective of the IPCC is to provide governments at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. IPCC reports are also a key input for international climate change negotiations. The IPCC is an organization of governments that are members of the United Nations or WMO. The IPCC currently has 195 members. Thousands of people from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC.2

As such, the IPCC is a model for future-oriented analysis of extreme risks that merits replication for other emerging threats. UNEP’s founding motion succinctly formulates how to begin developing policy responses under deep uncertainty:

Aware that national and international studies continue to conclude that a global climate change will result from increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities,

Concerned that such change would have potentially serious consequences for human welfare and the natural environment,

Mindful of the need to improve expeditiously scientific understanding of climate change, its causes and its consequences, as basis for formulating appropriate policy responses at the global, regional and national level,

Recognizing the importance of initiating international consideration of possible policy responses

1987 Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development

Also called “the Brundtland Report”, the report’s broad redefinition of “economic development” successfully popularized “sustainable development”, enabling the concept to enter the agenda of international and national institutions, corporations and cities. The Commission, a small sub-organization of the UN, dissolved with its release.3

We want to highlight its realistic optimism and focus on empowering future generations:

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth.

1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

Produced by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), colloquially known as the “Earth Summit”, this declaration helped to raise environmental awareness among UN member states. A noteworthy achievement of the summit was an agreement on the Climate Change Convention which led to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.4

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

[…]

The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.

1997 UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations

Pronounced in Paris in 1997, at UNESCO’s 29th session, this declaration is unprecedented in its explicit focus on the overwhelming moral importance of accounting for future generations and avoiding existential catastrophe:

Concerned by the fate of future generations in the face of the vital challenges of the next millennium,

Conscious that, at this point in history, the very existence of humankind and its environment are threatened,

Stressing that full respect for human rights and ideals of democracy constitutes an essential basis for the protection of the needs and interests of future generations,

Asserting the necessity for establishing new, equitable and global links of partnership and intragenerational solidarity, and for promoting intergenerational solidarity for the perpetuation of humankind,

Recalling that the responsibilities of the present generations towards future generations have already been referred to in various instruments […]

Determined to contribute towards the solution of current world problems through increased international co-operation, to create such conditions as will ensure that the needs and interests of future generations are not jeopardized by the burden of the past, and to hand on a better world to future generations,

Resolved to strive to ensure that the present generations are fully aware of their responsibilities towards future generations,

[…]

Bearing in mind that the fate of future generations depends to a great extent on decisions and actions taken today, and that present-day problems […] must be solved in the interests of both present and future generations,

Convinced that there is a moral obligation to formulate behavioural guidelines for the present generations within a broad, future-oriented perspective

2012 The Future We Want

The outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is a clearly future-focused title, gently nudging sustainability discourse towards more justice-oriented language and emphasising the relevance of present-day inclusion and diversity for sustainability.

We, the Heads of State and Government and high-level representatives, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June 2012, with the full participation of civil society, renew our commitment to sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations.

[…]

We recognize that opportunities for people to influence their lives and future, participate in decision-making and voice their concerns are fundamental for sustainable development. We underscore that sustainable development requires concrete and urgent action. It can only be achieved with a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and the private sector, all working together to secure the future we want for present and future generations.

[…]

We underscore the importance of a strengthened institutional framework for sustainable development which responds coherently and effectively to current and future challenges and efficiently bridges gaps in the implementation of the sustainable development agenda.

2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

The Sendai Framework was adopted by the UN at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan. 5 As the primordial agreement on international risk reduction efforts, it is particularly focused on building resilience to future catastrophes. It focuses heavily on anticipation and preparedness and thus provides context also for the governance of existential threats whose occurrence should be prevented entirely.

Reducing disaster risk is a cost-effective investment in preventing future losses. Effective disaster risk management contributes to sustainable development. Countries have enhanced their capacities in disaster risk management. International mechanisms for strategic advice, coordination and partnership development for disaster risk reduction, such as the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction and the regional platforms for disaster risk reduction, as well as other relevant international and regional forums for cooperation, have been instrumental in the development of policies and strategies and the advancement of knowledge and mutual learning.

2015 The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

A remarkable milestone, the Agenda 2030 has led to unprecedented adoption and cooperation on its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are the first global development framework with specific targets and indicators resulting from a UN resolution, making it more actionable than its predecessors.6

Even though it neglects extreme risks, with the exception of climate change, and neglects the value of digital technologies as solutions, the Agenda 2030 is fertile ground for cooperation and further development towards safeguarding the future of civilization. As the overarching framework for international cooperation, every additional effort has to be tied into the SDGs. It is, thus, crucial reading for anyone attempting to contribute to long-term governance.

We are announcing today 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 associated targets which are integrated and indivisible. Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda. We are setting out together on the path towards sustainable development, devoting ourselves collectively to the pursuit of global development and of “win-win” cooperation which can bring huge gains to all countries and all parts of the world. We reaffirm that every State has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity. We will implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations.

2020 Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations

Reminding ourselves of the recency of the UN and echoing previously listed framings, this declaration illustrates how the UN has evolved and currently attempts to tie together all threads of global governance:

Only together can we build resilience against future pandemics and other global challenges. Multilateralism is not an option but a necessity as we build back better for a more equal, more resilient and more sustainable world.

[…]

Strengthening international cooperation is in the interest of both nations and peoples. The three pillars of the United Nations – peace and security, development and human rights – are equally important, interrelated and interdependent. We have come far in 75 years but much more remains to be done. We have the tools and now we need to use them. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is our road map and its implementation a necessity for our survival. Urgent efforts are required. Therefore, we are not here to celebrate. We are here to take action. Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter, we are here to ensure the future we want and the United Nations we need.

[…]

What we agree today will affect the sustainability of our planet as well as the welfare of generations for decades to come. Through reinvigorated global action and by building on the progress achieved in the last 75 years, we are determined to ensure the future we want. To achieve this, we will mobilize resources, strengthen our efforts and show unprecedented political will and leadership. We will work together with partners to strengthen coordination and global governance for the common future of present and coming generations.

Photo by the Library of Congress.