Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations
As I mentioned earlier, I went to a talk by Dr Sándor Fülöp, Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, at the British Ministry of Justice headquarters on Thursday evening (2010-02-25). Here are some notes I took. Any inaccuracies are mine.
The Commissioner is one of four ombudspersons in Hungary, appointed by a two-thirds supermajority by Parliament for a 6-year term (good), eligible for reappointment (not so good). It is the only such commissioner for sustainability in the world. The legal basis is the Ombudsman Act, passed only a couple of years ago.
The name is poetic, but really the job description as provided in the Act is that of an environmental ombudsman – a complaints officer. It would be unwise to reopen the Act to include socio-economic concerns of future generations, for fear of industrial lobbying that would erode the environmental focus.
The main duties and powers of the Ombudsman:
- enforcement of constitutional rights re environment
- mediation with administration/government
- access to parliament (even the plenary) and constitutional court with expediency
- some scientific capability in the science unit
- examine policy – even European Union measures and international treaties
- power of suspension and remedy from operators
- litigation, intervenor (amicus curiæ)
- safeguarding the interests of future generations
- access to environmental information
- climate change and the sustainability of local communities (resilience)
- access to confidential documents, even commercial and military ones (an important power)
The Commissioner’s Office has only been with full staff in post for 14 months. So far, some 600 cases have been submitted, 400 dismissed, leaving about 200 valid cases. Among these, 70 has been decided and there are 130 live investigations.
In the advocacy work, 50 Bills in Parliament have been analyzed, such as
- reform of the Administrative Code re access to information and public participation
- deletion of the budgetary item for seed/gene bank is against the interests of future generations
- Kyoto carbon-trading units scandal – wrongful spending of ringfenced state funds
The largest case was that of a straw-based powerplant as large as 50 MW; too big. It would draw straws from a radius of 150 km with 200 trucks arriving per day. Worse, it would be located next to a World Heritage Site. The landscape would be changed into one dominated by the biofuel ‘weed’. The Unesco World Heritage treaty had not been transposed into Hungarian national law. The environmental impact assessment was done by the investors themselves. The Ombudsman’s final report had recommendations to all parties.
The smallest case concerned the noise of a late-evening café in downtown Budapest. Various areas of law could be involved and the complainant was given a menu of options to take the matter further.
Conclusion. These might seem like piecemeal work in a planet approaching (or even going beyond) its ecological boundaries. But this builds up a network of knowledge. The environment inspectorates in Hungary have low prestige, and do not apply the ‘finality principle’: only pushing files rather than dealing with environmental problems.
Questions and answers. Networking with churches and environmental industries are being explored.
The political atmosphere was fortunate when the Bill passed the Parliament: without consensus-forming work from the civil society, neither the governing party nor the opposition would have been able to create the new post. It so happened that the Speaker of the Parliament and the President of the Republic were both environmentalists. In preparation for this, an NGO worked for 7 years on the Ombudsman Bill, mocked up an ombudsman’s office and worked with it – similar to the success of the Friends of the Earth’s Big Ask campaign on a Climate Change Bill here in the United Kingdom. The most vociferous opponents of the new post were existing ombudspersons (for example, that for human rights).
The Ombudsman was not reluctant to say that his post is not impartial: it is victim-centred. The variety of possible norms, mandates, and conflicts for the post are philosophical questions he was not prepared to answer. There might well be a distinction to be made between a supposedly-impartial ombudsman and a biased public advocate; perhaps the commissioner is more the latter. He likened his office to a state NGO (quango?).
My questions for further consideration. How would a British sustainability ombudsperson/commission work with the existing Sustainable Development Commission and Climate Change Committee? Can we learn from the experience of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and its predecessors? Which Montesquian branch of the State would it belong to, if any? It would serve us well to study the Hungarian Ombudsman Act carefully.
Thanks to the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development and the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association for organizing the event, and to the Hungarian Embassy in London for facilitating it and providing the excellent wines.
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