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The Maastricht Principles on the Rights of Future Generations


  • The world is grappling with an array of intersecting crises that pose threats to human lives, livelihoods, and rights — not only of those currently living but of generations yet to come.

  • Courts, human rights bodies, international institutions, and governments around the world are increasingly confronting the question: What are our responsibilities to future generations?

  • When legal institutions grapple with new questions, the greatest source of guidance comes from the existing body of law; but often, it is challenging to crystallize existing law into new practice. 

  • In 2017, a group of legal and human rights experts from around the world undertook a six-year process to examine the landscape of human rights law as it applies to the human rights of future generations. They drew from more than a century of legal research, international treaties, national constitutions and legislation, the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples from every continent, doctrines from major faith traditions representing the majority of the world’s people, and consultations with members of key social movements and more than 200 experts spanning a wide array of legal and philosophical disciplines. 

  • The result is the Maastricht Principles on the Human Rights of Future Generations, adopted in early 2023 and endorsed by nearly sixty leading legal and human rights experts from around the world.

What is the purpose of the Maastricht Principles?

  • The Maastricht Principles are intended to clarify the state of international human rights law as it applies to future generations. They should guide the world’s approach to respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of future generations based on the legal architecture that has been evolving over the last seventy years. 

  • The Principles clearly demonstrate that there is already a robust body of law and precedent to draw on in respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the rights of future generations.

  • The Principles will help decision-makers answer fundamental questions about how to effectively incorporate the human rights of future generations into concrete laws, charters, and declarations. 

  • The Principles will serve as a critical resource for judges, human rights bodies, decision-makers at all levels of government, and corporate actors who must align their business practices with the urgent realities posed by unlimited human activity in a fundamentally limited world. 

What do the Principles say?

  • The Principles begin with the fundamental recognition that there is no temporal limitation to human rights in any of the foundational instruments in which they are recognized (such as the United Nations Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This means that the global body of human rights norms already recognizes the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, regardless of when they are born, including both present and future generations. 

  • As States grapple with how to protect future generations, the Principles state that we must first recognize that future generations are inherently covered by the existing body of human rights law. 

  • Therefore, respecting, protecting, and upholding the rights of future generations is simply a matter of upholding the most fundamental concept in human rights law: equality and non-discrimination.

  • In specific contexts, the Principles shed light on how profound and irreversible harm can discriminate against future generations. Destroying agricultural topsoils that take millennia to rebuild, polluting groundwaters that take many thousands of years to recharge, or rendering the very climate hostile to human life are all examples of irreparable discrimination. This illustrates that protecting rights demands a strong emphasis on precaution. 

  • The full set of Principles provides detailed guidance and examples of how legal regimes must protect the full array of human rights for future generations in various contexts. 

What impact will the Principles have?

  • In drawing on and adapting human rights and laws that already exist, the Maastricht Principles will help guide, inform, and accelerate the development and deployment of the law in this field. 

  • Creating new legal mechanisms can take decades and does not come with a guarantee of action. However, adapting existing legal and regulatory regimes can have immediate impacts on legal outcomes to protect the human rights of future generations. 

  • The Maastricht Principles are deeply relevant to contemporary legal cases addressing governments’ responsibilities to the rights of future generations that are playing out today in domestic courts and before human rights bodies around the world. By applying the Principles to existing legal frameworks, jurists and human rights mandate-holders have a toolkit to respond to these issues using bodies of law and practice that they already understand. 

  • For example, the Principles have foundational implications for the Advisory Opinion being developed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Advisory Opinion that the International Court of Justice has been asked to prepare on State responsibility in the face of climate change, and the call by the UN Secretary General to adopt a new mandate to make the UN Trusteeship Council accountable to future generations.

  • While the full impacts of the Maastricht Principles will only be realized over time, similar bodies of Principles adopted through the three preceding Maastricht processes have made extraordinary and transformative contributions to the progressive development of international human rights law. For example, the 2011 Maastricht Principles on the Extraterritorial Obligations of States have informed the work of States in developing the treaty on transnational corporations, the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and an array of human rights decisions.

  • Read the principles here

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