As this year begins, we know that a series of crucial events will take place that will affect the status of drinking water and sanitation as human rights. Last year, two milestone events took place on the international arena.
On 30 September last year, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed for the first time that the human right to water and sanitation is legally binding. This was a welcome move for all those who have worked hard to clarify the responsibilities for the provision of water and sanitation, and strengthen international support for these rights. The Council now made the clarification that the right to water and sanitation is derived from the right to adequate standard of living, included in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Council resolution was preceded, in July 2010, by resolution in the UN General Assembly. The resolution, an initiative of Bolivia, "recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights".
What do these statements mean for the one billion people suffering from lack of access to an improved water source, and the 2.6 billion without access to improved sanitation?
Indeed the resolutions provide useful tools for those who work to extend access. By recognising access as a human right, access is not only seen as a need to be fulfilled but as an entitlement for everyone, also those who face physical, institutional, cultural, language or other barriers in society. Human rights prohibit discrimination and they focus on situations of systematic exclusion. What more is, participation in decision-making processes is a key component of any human right. These are some of the sides to the right to water and sanitation that have the potential to change billions of lives. But first, States themselves have to come up with strategies on how they will work to implement the right.
At the next session of the Human Rights Council, the Independent Expert Catarina de Albuquerque, who has been working since 2008 with sorting out all the question marks in the debate on the right to water and sanitation, will present her final report to the Council with recommendations. This will take place in Geneva in late February –early March. The council will then decide whether her mandate will be prolonged and governments who are still hesitant about these human rights will have an opportunity to follow her recommendations and unanimously support the right to water and sanitation.
Some governments, including the Swedish, persist in saying that making access to water and sanitation human rights is not the best way to help people in the South. The best way to solve their problem is through development cooperation. In their scenario, because the lack of water is common, and society’s institutions are not well equipped and developed, Courts will be overloaded as masses of unserved people will claim their right. However, in countries that have recognised the right, this has not been the case.
I cannot help but wonder why developing rule of law and good governance cannot be done in parallel with strengthening legal obligations. Supporting institutions and judiciary systems, while working with those who lack water and sanitation to know their rights and who is responsible goes hand in hand in other issues. Just because many husbands beat their wives, and many wives therefore could take their husbands to court, we still would not dream of giving up freedom from violence as a human right. Human rights set a standard, so that we know what to work for.
by Ann-Marie Karlsson, Project Officer, Swedish Water House