3 October 2022
Farewell interview Prof. Fons Coomans

Are human rights of future generations our concern?

After years of meaningful work at our university, Prof. Fons Coomans gave his farewell address to the Faculty of Law on 2 September, where he examined important human rights questions. How do they impact our daily lives? And how do they affect people on a personal level? Will future generations still have human rights?

fons coomans

Voice of future generations

We bear the responsibility for future generations’ human rights. But how do we give rights to unborn people? “Legally, that isn’t possible”, says Fons. “After all, future generations literally have no voice – but we can make people who are currently alive their representatives. For example, Israel, Hungary, and Wales all have Ombudspersons who act as a guardian of future generations: they speak on their behalf. We have an unofficial ‘acting ombudsman’ in the Netherlands, too.”

Poverty: a human rights issue?

Human rights are (unfortunately) a frequent topic of discussion these days. A current example is the poverty issue in the Netherlands: inflation and rising (energy) bills are causing financial hardship for millions of people  – a dire situation, in other words. “But is this a human rights issue? If you try to capture poverty in legal terms, then you could probably argue it is. Think of the right to an adequate standard of living. There’s a reasonable safety net of benefits and welfare in the Netherlands, but it isn’t sufficient anymore. Poverty is still often viewed as an individual responsibility, and that’s how our government treats it.”

Fons disagrees. “In recent years, the policy of leaving privatisation and market forces in charge of energy supply, (health)care and housing has left many people to fend for themselves. It’s really a matter of cause and effect. You could even say that the government is currently failing to meet human rights obligations. However, that way of thinking hasn’t really entered the public consciousness. Because once we consider poverty a human rights issue, it comes with obligations. And that is where some people draw the line.”

Once we consider poverty a human rights issue, it comes with obligations. And that is where some people draw the line.
Fons Coomans

Human rights in practice

fons coomans

Fons’ words emphasise that we have plenty to discuss in the coming years when it comes to the topic of human rights. But how much of that discussion has had practical impact? “As scientists, we get involved in the academic debate by substantiating our ideas, after which we hope the government will do something with them – they could adopt a poverty policy based on human rights, for example. But when it comes to creating regulations and legislation in the Netherlands, we neglect to use the human rights obligations that are rooted in treaties we’ve signed as guidance.”

That’s why experts try to make their voices heard as much as possible. “In early 2023, Maastricht is organising and coordinating an expert meeting on the human rights of future generations, where we will try to put in writing what these human rights are and which obligations countries have to their inhabitants as a result, both today and tomorrow. We hope our expert opinions will contribute to the continued legislative basis of ensuring human rights. It’s a long-term process, of course, but we have to start emphasising our social responsibilities somewhere.”

That Fons is stepping down doesn’t mean that these projects and research will come to a halt. In fact, he’ll continue to work on human rights issues. “And on projects like Shelter City for human rights defenders or facilitating educational facilities for refugees in southern Limburg. In short, I will remain active as an emeritus professor at Maastricht University.”

By: Jodi Bel (via Letterdesk), photography: Jonathan Vos