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NEWS: Harper takes on UN role involving drinking water

The Globe and Mail reports that, “(Prime Minister Stephen) Harper will co-chair, with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, a United Nations commission tasked with tracking whether $40-billion in pledges from countries and aid groups are really flowing to efforts to improve the health of mothers and young children in poor countries, and what impact the programs have. …The assignment fits closely with the priorities Mr. Harper set out at the Muskoka G8 summit he hosted in June. …The new role also harks back to a week in September, when Mr. Harper told the UN conference on Millennium Development Goals that that they had to not just make promises to combat maternal and child deaths, but deliver.”

“UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Mr. Harper to co-chair the commission, aimed at ensuring that the strategy set at the September UN summit, and the billions of dollars in pledges, have a real impact. At the turn of the century, members of the United Nations set targets for reducing the deaths of mothers and young children as part of the Millennium Development Goals for alleviating poverty – but progress has lagged.”

The Toronto Star adds that, “Last summer Harper raised more than $7.3 billion in new funding (including $1.1 billion from Canada) through the G8’s Muskoka Initiative. The money will bankroll health care for mothers and young children, immunization and AIDS prevention, basic nutrition and clean drinking water — all the things that save lives. …Now Harper has agreed to co-chair a new UN commission that will provide reporting, oversight and accountability for the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. That’s the $40 billion UN drive to save the lives of 16 million women and kids by 2015. …Officials on the new Commission on Information and Accountability for Women and Children’s Health will identify best practices and track the results to make sure the money is being wisely spent.”


The prime minister said prior to the G8 and G20 summits this past June that the solution to the ‘unacceptable’ situation of 500,000 women who die during childbirth and 9 million children who die before the age of five every year need not be expensive, noting the cost of providing clean water, inoculations, better nutrition and training of health workers ‘is within the reach’ of any of the G8 countries. And yet less than five weeks later Canada abstained at the historic vote at the UN General Assembly recognizing water and sanitation as human rights.

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has stated that, “Recognizing water as a human right is vital to ensuring that governments address the reality of more than a billion people who are currently without access to clean water. A UN covenant on the right to water would serve as a common coherent body of rules for all nations, rich and poor, and clarify that it is the responsibility of the state to provide sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water to all of its citizens.”

Barlow has also written, “The UN Millennium Development Goals (which have been endorsed by the G8) include reducing by half the proportion of people living without safe drinking water by 2015. While laudable, this initiative is failing not only because the UN has worked with the World Bank to promote a flawed model for water development, but also because it assumes that there is enough water for everyone without seriously addressing the massive pollution of surface waters and the consequent massive over-mining of groundwater supplies. If the World Bank, the United Nations and northern countries were serious about providing clean water for all, they would cancel or deeply cut the Third World debt, substantively increase foreign aid, fund public services, tell their big bottling companies to stop draining poor countries dry and invest in water reclamation programs to protect source water. They would also tell the water companies that they no longer have any say in which countries and communities receive water funding.”

The Toronto Star comments on Harper’s new UN role by stating that, “This is valuable work that Canadians of every political stripe can salute. It will help re-establish Canada as an active UN player after a season of neglect that was capped by our failure to win a Security Council seat. Of course, Harper has an interest in polishing his Conservative party’s image in the run-up to national elections. This positions him as a fiscally prudent hawk with a heart of gold, appealing to conservatives and liberals alike. It’s an adroit move. Still, it will save lives. That makes it the right thing to do.”

We will be watching to see how Mr. Harper directs the fund to provide clean drinking water – a major factor in addressing infant mortality and maternal health – and whether he is able to take the necessary step in this new role to recognize the human right to water and sanitation. It is regrettable that the co-chair of this new commission – Tanzania – also abstained on the right to water vote at the United Nations this summer.