A proposal drafted by Bolivia to recognise the right to water and sanitation as a basic universal human right is now being discussed at the United Nations. Former Soviet leader and founding member of Green Cross International Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote an op-ed calling for support for the “historic resolution”.
“More lives have been lost after World War II due to contaminated water than from all forms of violence and war”, Gorbachev wrote.
This humanitarian catastrophe has been allowed to fester for generations. We must stop it.
Acknowledging that access to safe water and sanitation is a human right is crucial to the ongoing struggle to save these lives; it is an idea that has come of age. It was first proposed a decade ago by civil society organizations, like Green Cross International, which I helped establish in 1992. Today, it is a mainstream demand that many governments and business leaders support. That is a great achievement.
This month, for the first time, the U.N. General Assembly is preparing to vote on a historic resolution declaring the human right to “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation.” It is a pivotal opportunity.
“So far, 190 states have acknowledged — directly or indirectly — the human right to safe water and sanitation”, writes Gorbachev. This has also happened at regional level by the leaders from the Asia-Pacific countries in 2007 and by the European Union in March 2010.
Opposition to the proposal is coming mostly from Western nations, says Maude Barlow, a global water advocate and a founder of the Canada-based Blue Planet Project.
“Canada is the worst. But Australia, the United States and Great Britain are also holding up the process,” she said.
“I am loath to see this as a North-South issue, but it is beginning to look like it,” Barlow told IPS.
If the draft resolution is eventually adopted by the 192- member U.N. General Assembly, “it would be one of the most important things the United Nations has done since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she said.
Gorbachev mentions that a “few other states, like Turkey and Egypt, have also hesitated to formally acknowledge the right to water, mainly because of boundary-related water issues”.
However, an absolute global consensus is not essential. The reluctance of a handful of countries cannot derail this vitally important trend.
Recognizing water as a human right is a critical step, but it is not an instant “silver bullet” solution. This right must be enshrined in national laws, and upholding it must be a top priority.
A final text of the two-page draft is expected to be presented to the president of the General Assembly, Ali Abdussalam Treki, by the end of July 2010.
Speaking off-the-record, a diplomatic source told IPS: “This is something very dear to developing countries.”
It is true that there is actually no legal basis for declaring the right to water and sanitation as a basic universal human right, and issues like definitions and scope have to be worked out. He said the argument being made is there is already an ongoing process in Geneva that is meant to work on this, and that the General Assembly “is jumping the gun”.
“Overall, water and sanitation are such critical issues that we must work towards consensus on this resolution. Anything less than consensus would undermine the very importance we attach to them,” he warned.
“The lack of access to clean water is the greatest human rights violation in the world,” said Barlow, who was Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the U.N. General Assembly in 2008-2009.
Canadian fears that a right to water convention might force it to share its water with the United States, are a complete “red herring”, Barlow added.
The truth is that a right to water convention at the U.N. would act as a counterweight to those who want to sell Canada’s water for profit and is a more likely explanation of Canada’s continued opposition, Barlow said.
The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) is one of the organisations supporting the human right to water and sanitation. Project Officer Ann-Mari Karlsson said SIWI supports the views of the “U.N. independent expert that the right to water and sanitation are components of the rights to an adequate standard of living and that these rights are protected under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”.
She said it is important that a U.N. resolution on the right to water and sanitation should state this clearly, “which as far as we can see, the current draft does not”.
What is more, the importance of sanitation in this context cannot be underestimated.
Karlsson said water and sanitation are closely linked, and the world is more off track to reach the Millennium Development Goals on access to sanitation than it is for access to water.
“There should be an adequate reflection of this in the resolution,” she added.
Earlier the Freshwater Action Network (FAN) warned that there was talk of removing sanitation from the UN draft resolution on the human right to water and sanitation. Country level activities aimed at improving sanitation “will be greatly undermined if sanitation is not included in the UN resolution“, wrote public health professional Shamim Ahmed from Bangladesh in the Daily Star of 10 July 2010.
Advocacy group Food & Water Watch has launched an online petition asking U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to support the Human Right to Water.
Anil Naidoo, also of the Blue Planet Project, had lobbied officials from China and the 130-member Group of 77 developing countries to promote the draft resolution.
“International and local community groups fighting for water justice have long been calling for leadership from the U.N. in clearly recognizing that water and sanitation are human rights,” said Naidoo.
“As this moves forward we are demanding that the language of the resolution remain strong and leave no doubt that water and sanitation are human rights,” he added.
A coalition of international NGOs, including the Council of Canadians, Food and Water Europe, Corporate Europe Observatory and the Blue Planet Project, had appealed to members of the European Parliament seeking their political support as well.
“In light of the European Union’s recognition of water as a human right, it will be crucial that the EU play a key role in promoting this key resolution at the United Nations,” says the letter.
Michael Gorbachev ends his Op-Ed optimistically.
There is tremendous political will and popular momentum behind the movement to formally declare safe water and sanitation as human rights. We must seize this moment and translate our enthusiasm into solid, binding legislation and action at the national and international levels — starting with the expected U.N. vote this month.
I was pleased a few weeks ago to hear President Nicolas Sarkozy call for the 2012 World Water Forum — to be held in the French city of Marseille — to be the venue for the international recognition of the universal right to safe water and sanitation. This cause needs more “champions” — respected public figures and opinion leaders who act as its ambassadors around the world.
The actions and voices of millions of citizens have brought the global movement for the right to water this far. I hope that more people will join us to help bring us closer to the ultimate goal — a world where everyone’s right to safe water and sanitation is not just recognized but is also fulfilled.
Source: Thalif Deen, IPS, 15 Jul 2010 ; Mikhail Gorbachev, New York Times, 16 Jul 2010