As the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June approaches, human rights experts and civil society organisations are disappointed about the lack of attention to human rights in the negotiations. The latest draft for the Rio+20 statement does include a reference to the human right to water and sanitation, but it remains contested. In an open letter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, reminds the governments going to Rio that this right is essential for the full enjoyment of life and other human rights. She strongly calls on States to recommit to the human right to water and sanitation at Rio+20 in order to achieve sustainable development that places people at the centre.
This is not a call for new positions. The struggle at this point is more to maintain the support for a human right that has already been recognized under international law, in order not to start moving backwards on the issue. Therefore it is vital to keep explicitly referring to the human right to water and sanitation in the document, in order to prioritize the under-served and to ensure non-discrimination. There are also fears that the recognition of sanitation as central for human dignity and sustainable development will be lost in the negotiations. The UN special rapporteur therefore calls for an inclusion for sanitation in the Sustainable Development Goals, just as sanitation is already part of the current Millennium Development Goals efforts.
The Special Rapporteur's open letter reiterates what the key features of the right are: "A sustainable development target for water and sanitation should aim at achieving access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all without discrimination, in sufficient quantities to protect human health and dignity, particularly for the most marginalized."
Taking a broader perspective, 200 African NGOs in the NGO Forum preceding the 51st session of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) issued a joint resolution in calling for a strengthened national resources governance framework in compliance with human rights principles and harmonizing minimum standards. The NGO Forum agreed that governments in Rio should reiterate that all legal frameworks governing natural resources, including use and pollution of water resources for industrial purposes, should comply with human rights commitments and ensure human rights, prior, free and informed consent for the protection of customary rights, access to information for empowerment, and participation for sustainable and equitable outcomes.
The international organisation Freshwater Action Network joins the choir of civil society organizations applauding the UN Special Rapporteur’s open letter and states that “Now, on the first day of the third round of ‘informal informals, we are calling loud and clear with a united voice: States must recommit to the human right to water and sanitation to achieve true sustainable development.”
Informal discussions in preparation for Rio+20 are taking place this week.
- Resolution by NGO Forum to the Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
- Open letter by the Special Rapporteur
- Statement by Freshwater Action Network