Thursday, August 05, 2010

Water as a human right; pro and con

Water has now been officially declared as a human right according to the United Nations. Last week, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution to call on governments to provide water to their people. The UN has not recognized water as a human right until now as it was not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948.

Today's Globe and Mail has a fascinating comparison of two different viewpoints on the new water declaration. One columnist says that it's about time for this new human right, another says that now governments can use water as a way to control people. What we find interesting about both views is that one criticizes the oppressive governments of the west, while another criticizes oppressive authoritarian governments.

First, Maude Barlow who is chair of the Council of Canadians gives us the 'pro' viewpoint.

However, by then it had become clear that the growing demand for water was rendering it a potentially valuable global commodity, and a strong set of adversaries came together to oppose any language of rights at the UN. These forces included the World Bank, which was promoting a program of water privatization in the developing world; the big water utility companies benefiting from this program; and the aid agencies of some big northern countries whose governments had bought into a market model of development. Canada led the opposition to any progress on the right to water at the UN, even weakening the mandate of the independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council two years ago to study and report on the situation.

Fed up with the delay and obfuscation, a number of countries from the global South (led by Bolivia, whose glaciers are melting due to climate change) decided to put a clear up or down vote to the General Assembly and force every country in the world to say where it stands on this most basic of rights. To its shame, Canada was one of the countries, along with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, that led the opposition to the resolution. Some tried to get the sponsoring countries to dilute the resolution by removing sanitation or adding the words “access to” water and sanitation, which would have meant that governments only had to provide access to these services, not the services themselves, to those without means. Others, including Canada, proposed a “consensus” resolution that would have just restated the status quo and the need to wait for the report of the independent expert. When it was clear they could not get the support for their alternatives, the big five simply abstained.

This vote marked a historic landmark in the fight for water justice in several ways. Countries representing 5.4 billion people – the vast majority of the population on Earth – voted in favour of the human right to water and sanitation. The language of the resolution itself set the gold standard for all future deliberations on the right to water. While a resolution is not binding, it does nevertheless demonstrate the intent of the General Assembly, and when the time comes for a more binding declaration or convention, the clear and unequivocal wording of this resolution will serve as the template.

Now for the 'con' from Jacob Mchangama, who is legal affairs head of the Danish think tank CEPOS

In international law, individually enforceable human rights are things the state cannot take away from you – life, liberty, property – not things that the state must provide for you with taxpayer money. More importantly, this declaration will not help those whose health and quality of life are threatened by the lack of clean water and sanitation.

For rights to have meaning, it must be clear what they are and who is responsible for upholding them. Take free speech: If a government arrests a dissident for peaceful statements or thoughts, it is breaching its obligation to uphold a clear human right. Courts would then be responsible for upholding this right.

The right to clean water and sanitation is far less definable and depends on economic development, technology and infrastructure. Above all, if people have a right to water and sanitation, other people must provide it – in practice, governments using public money. Such privileges are called “positive rights,” as opposed to “negative rights” that cannot be taken away from you. So this is really a call for state intervention, at the expense of other priorities and freedoms – and water is no more a practically enforceable human right than other essential commodities, such as food, clothing or shelter.

This resolution follows naturally from activists’ ideological resistance to the privatization of water. This ignores the countless examples, from Bolivia to Egypt, where governments have failed to provide clean water due to corruption, cronyism, mismanagement and waste. It also ignores successful private models in Bolivia, Chile, Denmark and elsewhere. Giving governments ultimate control over the supply of water may even be dangerous, because authoritarian regimes can use their power to punish the recalcitrant and reward their supporters.

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