The UN Human Rights Council has finally recognised the right to water and sanitation as legally binding in international law, in a landmark decision adopted on 30 September 2010.
[T]he UN affirmed [...] by consensus that the right to water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, which is contained in several international human rights treaties. While experts working with the UN human rights system have long acknowledged this, it was the first time that the Human Rights Council has declared itself on the issue.
According to the UN Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, “this means that for the UN, the right to water and sanitation, is contained in existing human rights treaties and is therefore legally binding”. She added that “this landmark decision has the potential to change the lives of the billions of human beings who still lack access to water and sanitation.”
The affirmation comes after 120 countries voted in favour of a resolution recognising the fundamental right to water and sanitation at the UN General Assembly in New York on 28 July 2010.
However, that resolution did not specify that the right entailed legally binding obligations. The Human Rights Council – the main UN body competent in the area of human rights – in a resolution tabled by the Governments of Germany and Spain, with support from dozens of countries, has closed this gap by clarifying the foundation for recognition of the right and the legal standards which apply.
Ms. de Albuquerque said:
“I wholeheartedly welcome this resolution from the Human Rights Council, which signals a global agreement that access to water and sanitation are no longer matters of charity. The right to water and sanitation is a human right, equal to all other human rights, which implies that it is justiciable and enforceable. Hence from today onwards we have an even greater responsibility to concentrate all our efforts in the implementation and full realisation of this essential right.”
Kate Norgrove, Head of Campaigns at WaterAid, said:
“This is real success for sanitation and water, but you can’t drink words and rights – we need concrete action on the ground for the 2.6 billion people without adequate sanitation and the 884 million without safe water.
“The hard work starts here; now we need this international agreement translated into action on sanitation and water by governments at the national level.”
Danielle Morley Executive Secretary for Freshwater Action Network (FAN), said:
“We’ve been working towards this moment for a decade. This is a fantastic development and will have a huge impact on the water and sanitation sector.
“In 160 countries in all regions of the world, governments can no longer deny their legal responsibility to ensure provision of safe water and sanitation services for the billions of poor people lacking access.”
While the UN Human Rights Council resolution was adopted by consensus, the UK disassociates from it but in “an incredible turn around” the USA joins it with explanation. The UK’s ‘disassociation’ from consensus is a way, according to FAN, “of saying that the country reserves its position to disagree with the contents of the resolution”. The UK continues to take a hard line on sanitation. Its representative Jennifer MacNaughtan, speaking at a Human Rights Council meeting on 15 September 2010, maintained that the “United Kingdom did not believe that there existed, at present, a sufficient legal basis under international law to declare sanitation as a human right”.
Read the full text of UN Resolution A/HRC/15/L.14