Analysis of the UN General Assembly's Resolution on Right to Water and Sanitation

Why historic UN General Assembly Resolution declaring Water and Sanitation as a Right, was opposed and vetoed by those who strongly have been professing for human rights

The historic UN General Assembly Resolution declaring Water and Sanitation as a Right, was passed on the 28th July 2010. 

What is surprising is the complete silence to this UN Resolution from some of the countries who have been traditional champions of human rights, in terms of celebrating it as a historic achievement in advocating a basic right to water and sanitation. Instead some of them went one step short of openly opposing and vetoing the UN Resolution and have heaped criticism on Bolivia for tabling this UN Resolution.

One critique to the UN Resolution is that it does not make any new claim for water and sanitation as a right. This is not correct. Mr. Pablo Solon the Bolivian Representative to the UN, while tabling the Resolution said that “Drinking water and sanitation are not only elements or principal components of other rights such as “the right to an adequate standard of living. The right to drinking water and sanitation are independent rights that should be recognized as such. It is not sufficient to urge States to comply with their human rights obligations relative to access to drinking water and sanitation. Instead, it is necessary to call on states to promote and protect the human right to drinking water and sanitation.”

The fact how important is water for lifePhoto Credits: Anil Gulati

Another critique says that the UN Resolution undermines the work done by the Independent Expert on Human Rights. This is also not correct. Clear directions were given by Mr. Pablo Solon in tabling the Resolution to the UN Independent Expert - that the work done by her conforms to the requirements of the General Assembly that is the supreme body of Nations.  He said “We emphasize and encourage in the third operative paragraph of this resolution that the independent expert continue working on all aspects of her mandate, and present to the General Assembly the principal challenges related to the realization of the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation and their impact on the achievement of Millennium Development Goals.”

The directions given in tabling the UN Resolution are therefore very appropriate given the possibility of vagueness creeping in to the Independent Experts final report that is expected in 2011. On defining who will be accountable to the people for securing their Right to Water and Sanitation – as perhaps one of the principal challenges of securing a meaningful Right.

The initiative for tabling this UN Resolution was taken up by Bolivia, the country that witnessed the first organized protests against denial of drinking water and also water for sanitation – the famous Cochabamba peoples movement against exclusive ownership of all water resources in the city that denied local people from even accessing water from any source including surface river flows, ground water and ponds. Mr. Pablo Solon who tabled the Resolution, was part of this movement. The rich legacy of this movement was transformed into the first political victory of an indigenous peoples to be elected as Head of State of Bolivia in 2009.

Few of the leading developed countries or India and other BRICSAM(Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico) countries took the initiative to table this historic UN Resolution. The UK, USA, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Netherlands and New Zealand - abstained from voting. Only a few developed countries(France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland) voted in favour of the UN Resolution. None however had the courage to veto this UN Resolution.

It was observed in the South Asia Conference on Sanitation(SACOSAN 3 in Delhi in 2008), a small country like Nepal took the most progressive position in pursuing peoples agenda in the inter ministerial meeting. Perhaps globally, the leadership for taking up Rights based demands for essential services and supporting peoples movements in the coming future, is likely to come from those countries where there are popular mass movements and peoples struggles as was witnessed in Bolivia and Nepal. This leadership is not likely to come from developed countries or the BRICSAM where there are few mass movements and democratic struggles that see expression not in policy lobbying at high levels but on the streets and work place.

We are also aware how a few countries got together and tried to negotiate a Climate Change deal on behalf of all the developing countries in Copenhagen in Dec 2009. Again the BRIC countries were seen ditching the larger coalition of countries and trying to secure a deal that would be beneficial to them. This was opposed and hence could not get an official seal of approval.

While the governments of developed countries may criticize the small countries like Bolivia and Nepal with excuses that their actions did not yield any meaningful result and BRICSAM governments remain silent – civil society and mass movements will need to support and stand together with the governments of these small countries who take leadership at the international and regional level for representing peoples demands for a right to water and sanitation and other rights.

When speaking about Right to water and sanitation, the core issue is how do we see water – as a social or as an economic good? Perhaps this is the core issue for the opposition to the UN Resolution on Right to Water & Sanitation, by most developed countries. Water is needed for sanitation too. World Bank sees water as an Economic Good. As per the ADB Water Policy, water is seen both as a social and economic good. Water is an economic good to be traded as per NAFTA

For countries like India that suffer from a huge deficit of drinking water(specially for its growing cities), where we had water trains running for eight months fetching drinking water for the city of Bhilwara from Kota and basic water and sanitation infrastructure access is denied to slum dwellers, it is imperative that water is treated as a social good for meeting the basic water needs for domestic consumption(drinking water, home cleaning and washing and sanitation). That this is seen as a lifeline supply that is not linked to their ability to pay. The current parallel process of the UN Independent Expert on Human Right to Water and Sanitation, will have to take a position on how it defines water – as a social good or as an economic good.



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