A Look at the UN's Resolution on Water as a Human Right

by Yee Huang

August 23, 2010

a(broad) perspective

No single substance is more necessary to humans than water. For people in developed countries, clean, potable water arrives with the simple turn of a faucet knob. For much of the world’s population, however, getting access to clean water is much more complex, if not impossible, and not having clean water leads to a host of diseases and conflict and is intimately tied to poverty.

In late July, the 192-member General Assembly of the United Nations adopted, without opposition (though not unanimously), a resolution on the human right to water. Specifically, the General Assembly declared that “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”. The resolution notes that approximately 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and that more than 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation. As a result, approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 5 years old die and miss 443 million school days each year.

The United States was one of 41 countries that abstained from voting. In doing so, U.S. deputy representative to the U.N Economic and Social Council John Sammis cited ongoing work of other U.N. bodies to increase access to water and asserted that the resolution “was not drafted in a transparent, inclusive manner” with no thought to the legal implications of establishing this right.

Prior to this resolution, a human right had to be implied by jumping hoops through various international human rights treaties, such as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1996 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights, or various regional treaties. Those covenants have specific mandates and related enforcement mechanisms, namely the UN’s Human Rights Committee and other regional human rights commissions.

The new resolution does not refer to these larger international human rights texts, nor does it establish any mandates. Instead, it calls for countries to provide financial resources and other capacity and technology assistance to “scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.” Both this resolution and previous steps to imply a human right to water are half-steps, each containing something the other lacks but not amounting to a whole.

This resolution marks recognition by 122 countries of the human right to water, no small feat. However, whether it translates into substantive outcomes—clean water and sanitation—for communities remains to be seen.

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