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NEWS: UN Human Rights Council recognizes the rights to water and sanitation

The UN News Centre reports that, “(On September 30) the main United Nations body dealing with human rights has affirmed that the right to water and sanitation is contained in existing human rights treaties, and that States have the primary responsibility to ensure the full realisation of this and all other basic human rights.”

“While the General Assembly declared in July that safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights, this is the first time that the (47-member) Human Rights Council has declared itself on the issue. …The (General) Assembly’s resolution (in July) recognized the fundamental right to clean water and sanitation, but did not specify that the right entailed legally binding obligations. The (Human Rights) Council closed this gap by clarifying the foundation for recognition of the right and the legal standards which apply…”

The UN Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, says, “This means that for the UN, the right to water and sanitation, is contained in existing human rights treaties and is therefore legally binding. …The right to water and sanitation is a human right, equal to all other human rights, which implies that it is justiciable and enforceable.”

AquaFed, the International Federation of Private Water Operators, also welcomed the resolution. That’s likely because the resolution, as paraphrased in a Water World article, says, “Public authorities have the possibility to choose ‘non-State’ actors, (private companies, entrepreneurs, NGOs, community-based organizations and State-owned companies) to provide safe drinking water and sanitation as they see appropriate. Their responsibilities when using any of these service providers are the same.”

While Corporate Accountability International says the passage of the resolution is “an important step towards making (the rights to water and sanitation) legally binding” they are “concerned that some elements of this resolution do not go far enough, and could even be detrimental to the realization of these rights. In particular, (they) are concerned about operating paragraph (OP) seven of the resolution, which deals with the involvement of non-State actors – including the private sector – in the provision of water and sanitation services.”

They highlight, “For years, governments and international financial institutions have actively and systematically promoted the involvement of corporations in the provision of water and sanitation services, often at the expense of people’s lives and health. Millions of people have seen their water rates skyrocket or their access to water cut off when private corporations have controlled their access to water for profit, or have waited in vain for the promises of these corporations to extend water access to their communities.”

On September 21, Corporate Accountability International and eighteen other civil society organizations – including the Blue Planet Project/ Council of Canadians – sent a letter expressing these concerns to the members of the Human Rights Council and to all member states at the UN General Assembly.

In April 2008, the Toronto Star reported that, “Canada emerged as the pivotal nation behind recent manoeuvres to block the United Nations Human Rights Council from recognizing water as a basic human right, according to international observers. The Geneva-based body wrapped up an intense three-week session late Friday without passing a German-Spanish resolution intended to enshrine its importance… It would have also set up an international watchdog to monitor the actions of individual countries. …(Maude Barlow said) that the resolution would have buttressed the argument that nobody should be able to expropriate water for financial profit. …’It was a benchmark for the concept water is a right, not a commodity,’ Barlow said… (Canadian foreign affairs) spokesperson Shaun Tinkler said the compromise resolution (that was passed) ‘accurately reflects that a right to water is not explicitly recognized as a fundamental human right under international human rights law.'”

The Montreal Gazette reported in June that, “Bolivia’s draft resolution indicated that global water rights would ‘entitle everyone to available, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable water and sanitation.’ …June’s draft resolution declared that countries unable to provide water to their residents should be assisted through ‘international co-operation and assistance,’ essentially calling for rich countries to give foreign aid to any government that says it doesn’t have the means to meet its citizens’ water rights.” In late-June, the Canwest News Service reported that, “Water-rich Canada is among the western countries seeking to pull the plug on the Bolivian bid… Canada would be content to see the campaign fizzle into a debate about the ‘right to access to clean water’ – with emphasis on the word ‘access’, one insider indicated. …In the language of diplomats, having to provide ‘access’ would oblige governments to do no more than deliver water as a marketable commodity – not as a core right that would have to be given to anyone, anywhere, anytime. …(The) Foreign Affairs Department says, among several policy statements on the issue, that Canada ‘recognizes there are linkages between access to safe drinking water and certain existing human rights obligations.’” On July 28, when the UN General Assembly voted to recognize the rights to water and sanitation, Canada was one of the 41 countries to abstain.