Considering the Human Rights of Future Generations in Ocean Governance

By Sophie Shields and Elisa Morgera

The newly published Maastricht Principles on the Human Rights of Future Generations mark a significant step in clarifying States’ obligations in the context of intergenerational equity, which is a pillar of international environmental law, including climate change and biodiversity law, as well as of the law of the sea. This blog post reflects on the relevance of the Maastricht Principles for children, future generations and the ocean, in line with the One Ocean Hub’s ongoing commitment to strengthen research on children’s human right to a healthy environment.


The new Principles, which were developed by a diverse group of academics, have been endorsed by nearly sixty international, legal and human rights experts, including David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, who notes:

“The robust Maastricht Principles provide humanity with a compass to guide us out of the current global environmental crisis. Governments, businesses, and courts must adopt and apply these Principles so that we all learn to be good ancestors.”

The Principles may be used by States and courts, to shape and enforce the application of human rights law for future generations. Previous sets of Maastricht Principles have proved influential: for instance, the 2011 Maastricht Principles on the Extraterritorial Obligations of States have informed the 2021 Sacchi v Argentina Case (CRC/C/88/D/104/2019) considered by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, who upheld the States’ extraterritorial obligations to protect children in the context of climate change: the UN Committee clarified that a State party can be held accountable for the negative impact of its carbon emissions on children’s rights, both within and outside its territory.

Maastricht Principles on Future Generations and Children’s Human Rights

The Maastricht Principles are highly relevant to children’s human rights, relying on the interpretation of former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox, that “discussions of future generations [must] take into account the rights of the children who are constantly arriving, or have already arrived, on this planet” and “States Obligations to integrate children’s human rights in decision-making which includes future generations.” (Knox Report, 2018, paras 67 and 47-50).

On a related note, the Maastricht Principles preamble notes:

“Children and youth are closest in time to generations still to come and thus occupy a unique position, and have an important role to play, within this transition to long-term, multigenerational thinking.” (para vii).

The recently published UN General Comment 26 on Children’s Human Rights and the Environment, with a Special Focus on Climate Change also highlights implications for future generations. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child highlights that “ while the rights of children who are present on Earth require immediate urgent attention, the children constantly arriving are also entitled to the realisation of their human rights to the maximum extent.” The Committee goes on to note that, “States bear the responsibility for foreseeable environment-related threats arising as a result of their acts or omissions now, the full implications of which may not manifest for years or even decades”(para 11).

Further recognition of the special weight that must be accorded to children’s human rights in the context of future generations in the Maastricht Principles include States’ obligations to:

  • respect and ensure the full enjoyment of children’s human rights in the present, as well as ensuring that their human rights in the future are not jeopardised;
  • recognise and respect that present children, adolescents and youth occupy a proximate position to future generations, and protect their rights to be heard and other participatory rights; and
  • take adequate and effective measures to guarantee the rights of individuals, or groups of individuals working to protect or promote the rights of future generations, including women, children and youth, Indigenous Peoples and environmental and human rights defenders (paras. 7(b) and 22(c) and (e)).

The Ocean and Future Generations

The Maastricht Principles make one express connection with the ocean. When they clarify the unique relationships with nature systems which are under threat for future generations, noting, “Peasants, local, and traditional communities, including small-scale fishers and fish workers… have a special relationship with the land, water, and natural processes on which they depend for their livelihoods. They play a vital role in conserving and restoring biodiversity, protecting cultural heritage, undertaking sustainable practices of agricultural production, and ensuring food security for present and future generations (para 12a).

The Maastricht Principles then clarify the scope of violations which consider the linkages between the rights of future generations and environmental human rights, which can be considered implicitly relevant also for the protection of the marine environment. This is the case of human rights violations by:

  • depriving future generations of sustainable and equitable enjoyment of natural resources, Nature or ecosystems necessary for the enjoyment of their rights to life, health, and an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including the rights to food, water, housing and sanitation (para 17(a)), which can be interpreted to include marine ecosystems;
  • contributing to a decline in biodiversity or to anthropogenic climate change (para 17(d)), which can be interpreted to include the loss of marine biodiversity;
  • entering or remaining in bilateral or multilateral agreements that undermine the enjoyment of human rights by future generations (para 17(i)), which can be interpreted to include bilateral and/or multilateral agreements at the ocean-climate nexus; and
  • taking measures that are foreseeably likely to result in the displacement of future generations from their land, territories and/or housing, or that deprive them of enjoyment of Nature, ecosystems or natural resources (para 17(k)), which can be interpreted to include the threat of displacement of Indigenous peoples, others coastal communities and small-scale fishers from marine areas and resources on which they depend.

The Maastricht Principles also note the role of both public and private actors in securing an equitable future for future generations, noting that States must take all necessary measures to protect the human rights of future generations against substantial risks posed by the conduct of public and private actors, including business enterprises (para 18(a)), which is also relevant to the role of business in ocean management (see here and here).

Together, all these considerations are relevant to ongoing Hub research on international processes and States’ obligations at the ocean-climate nexus. In particular, where the Maastricht Principles clarify that:

  • recognising and ensuring the rights of future generations demands an evolution of decision-making processes to consider and ensure both justice and sustainability across an array of timescales including the present, near term and distant future (para vi);
  • obligations to protect the human rights of future generations extend to all conduct of States, whether through actions and omissions, and whether undertaken individually or collectively, including decisions made in their capacity as members of international or regional organisations. Such conduct includes, but is not limited to, the adoption or implementation of policies, practices, programs and legislation (para 13(b)0; and
  • future generations must be represented meaningfully and effectively in decision-making that may impact on their enjoyment of human rights (22a).

Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Reduced inequality
  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Partnership for the goals