GA pre-empts Council and recognises the human right to water and sanitation
Monday, 02 August 2010 23:50

In an historic move on 28 July 2010, the General Assembly 'recognised' the 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.'


Brought by Bolivia and supported by almost 40 co-sponsors, the text (Resolution 64/292) proved controversial for a geographically diverse group of States, which abstained from the vote (122:0:41). One of their main concerns was that the resolution pre-empted the work currently underway at the Human Rights Council to clarify the content of States' obligations related to access to water and sanitation. This work is being undertaken by the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drainking water and sanitation, Ms Catarina de Albuquerque. As the US explained when it called for the vote, the "resolution attempts to take a short-cut around the serious work of formulating, articulating and upholding univeral rights. It was not drafted in a transparent, inclusive manner, and the legal implications of a declared right to water have not yet been carefully and fully considered" at the Council or the General Assembly.

Bolivia explained that the September High-Level Summit on the Millennium Development Goals was the driving force behind the timing of the resolution. The co-sponsors wanted to 'give a clear signal to the world that drinking water and sanitation are a human right, and that we will do everything possible to reach this goal'.


The need for urgent action to meet the MDG target on acess to safe drinking water and sanitation was reflected in the second operative paragraph of the draft text. It called on States and international organisations to provide the financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, to scale up efforts to provide safe drinking water and sanitation for all. The text also welcomed the work being done by the Independent Expert, particularly that she is reporting annually to the General Assembly. It requested that her report to the 66th session of the General Assembly (late 2011) address the principal challenges to the realisation of the human right to safe drinking water  and sanitation, and their impact on the MDGs.


In a gesture designed to win broader support for the text, Bolivia orally amended the key paragraph of the resolution so that the General Assembly would 'recognise' rather than 'declare' the right to water and sanitation. However, this only drew the criticism of the US delegate, who saw it as another "imposition on all of us" given that there was no prior warning of the change. Although the US said it had hoped to join consensus, the text would need to have been framed in an entirely different way, given its view that existing international law does not recognise 'a right to water and sanitation'. Rather, the US explained there are human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and safe and accessible water supplies further the realisation of certain human rights. The UK shared a similar interpretation of international law, and also abstained.


The European Union was split in its vote. States such as Germany, Hungary and Spain which voted in favour, explained that the right to water and sanitation were part of the right to an adequate standard of living, as expressed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. They did not see Bolivia's resolution as cutting across the work at the Council, but regretted that EU proposals to improve the text (by incorporating more language on the work underway in Geneva) had not been incorporated. Among the EU members that abstained, the Netherlands explained that it was unhappy with the Asembly's 'ad hoc' recognition of the right and the negative implications it would have for the work of the Independent Expert. It also felt insufficient responsibility was placed on national governments, given they bear primary responsibility for ensuring the enjoyment of human rights and providing redress for violations. Other members which astained included Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Slovakia and Sweden.  

Many of the States that supported the resolution, expressed regret that consensus had not been reached. Some pointed out that this was potentially damaging to the process in Geneva, and encouraged all States to actively participate in it (Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Guatemala, Germany, France, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Norway, Russian Federation, Yemen). The next opportunity for participation will be at the September  (15th) session of the Council, when the Independent Expert presents her second annual report.


In a statement on 30 July, the Independent Expert welcomed the General Assembly resolution. She saw it as a positive indication that the international community is committed to addressing the 'sanitation crisis' that affects 40 percent of the world's population, and thought this 'augers well' for the upcoming MDG Summit.

Last Updated on Monday, 16 August 2010 21:12
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