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UPDATE: Harper government continues to oppose the right to water

The Harper government has consistently opposed the right to water and sanitation.

MARCH 2008: The Harper government undermined a key resolution tabled by Germany and Spain at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for water and sanitation to be recognized as a human right. The resolution sought to establish a ‘special rapporteur’ with the mandate to provide guidance on the right to water and sanitation, identify best practices, investigate country situations and promote the right internationally. The Harper government weakened the resolution by demanding that references to the right to water and sanitation be removed and that the scope be reduced. They also wanted the position of ‘special rapporteur’ downgraded to ‘independent expert’ and opposed visits by this expert to individual countries and the granting of a mandate enabling them to clarify the content of the right to water and sanitation.

JUNE 2010: The Canwest News Service reported, “Canada is among the western countries seeking to pull the plug on the Bolivian bid (to have the United Nations recognize the right to water and sanitation) — in part on grounds the resolution could impinge on Canada’s sovereignty rights over its natural resources. 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. …Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon has taken the position the government ‘will not put Canada in a position where our sovereign right to protect our natural resources is compromised by any international treaties,’ according to comments on the issue prepared for delivery in the House of Commons.”

JULY 2010: The Harper government abstained in the historic vote at the UN General Assembly recognizing the right to water and sanitation. The resolution was carried with the support of 122 countries. Forty-one countries abstained, including Canada.

MARCH 2011: In its World Water Day message, the Harper government did not acknowledge the UN vote several months earlier recognizing the right to water and sanitation. The Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda only said, “Access to clean water and basic sanitation is fundamental to human health and sustainable development. …On this World Water Day, I ask you to remember those who still lack access to these invaluable resources around the world.” In contrast, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton stated in her World Water Day message, “The EU acknowledges the recent recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the UN General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council’s specification that this right is part of the human right to an adequate standard of living.”

APRIL 2011: During the last federal election, the Guelph Mercury reported, “A voter asked the candidates (at a Wellington-Halton Hills all-candidates meeting in Fergus, Ontario) if they would have water enshrined as a human right. …(The Conservative candidate – who won – Michael) Chong said he was unsure what implications such a right would have on municipal water systems, and could not support it for that reason.” The Conservative Party was otherwise silent during the election on this right and its obligations to fulfil this now internationally recognized human right.

SEPTEMBER 2011: Queen’s University law professor Bruce Pardy wrote in the Financial Post just days ago, “(The Harper government’s) reluctance (to recognize the right to water and sanitation) makes sense. In fact, in recent years the Canadian government has led resistance to the creation of international water rights, and should be congratulated for its foresight.”

World Health Assembly vote
In May 2011, Canada voted at the World Health Assembly (the governing body of the World Health Organization) in favour of a resolution that urged member states, “to ensure that national health strategies contribute to the realization of water- and sanitation-related Millennium Development Goals while coming in support to the progressive realization of the human right to water and sanitation that entitles everyone, without discrimination, to water and sanitation that is sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable for personal and domestic uses.”

That resolution also requested the Director-General, “to strengthen WHO’s collaboration with all relevant UN-Water members and partners, as well as other relevant organizations promoting access to safe drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene services, so as to set an example of effective intersectoral action in the context of WHO’s involvement in the United Nations Delivering as One initiative, and WHO’s cooperation with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinkingwater and sanitation with a view to improving the realization of the human right to water and sanitation.”

Furthermore, the resolution referenced, “the United Nations General Assembly resolution 64/292, which 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’ and the Human Rights Council resolution (A/HRC/RES/15/9) affirming that the ‘human right to safe drinking-water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity’.”

The Council of Canadians does not believe that this vote at the World Health Assembly signals a reversal in position by the Harper government on the right to water and sanitation. Despite public pressure and repeated requests, the Harper government still has not explicitly made any public statements in this regard. And the Harper government has not taken any steps to ensure that the right is implemented in Canada, especially with respect to the numerous First Nations communities across the country lacking drinking water and sanitation. The Council of Canadians will be following-up with Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) officials shortly seeking their views on the implications of the WHA vote. More soon.

Maude Barlow’s June 2011 report ‘Our Right to Water: A People’s Guide to Implementing the United Nations’ Recognition of the Right to Water and Sanitation‘, please go to http://canadians.org/water/documents/RTW/righttowater-0611.pdf. The version with a Canadian chapter (pages 23 to 29) can be read at http://canadians.org/water/documents/RTW/righttowater-CA-0611.pdf.