15 October 2010

Commentary: UN Resolution on the Human Right to Water

Editor's Note: following is my commentary on topics surrounding the recent United Nations Resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, on which I reported previously and provided an annotated copy. This is my way of reaching out to others with interests in the state of international water governance, while still trying to figure out what we can do about it...



The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed a universal Human Right to Water and Sanitation (document A/64/L.63/REV.1, in several languages including English pdf). In the voting on the resolution, 122 nations voiced their favor and 41 nations abstained. The United States, among several wealthy countries, numbered in the abstentions and was apparently among the most outspoken on their reasons.

The official explanation, according to the U.S. representative to the United Nations, was recorded in the proceedings of the Plenary Session:
The representative of the United States expressed his Government’s deep commitment to finding solutions to global water challenges, noting that water and sanitation would be an important focus at the upcoming Millennium Development Goal Summit. Safe and accessible water supplies furthered the realization of certain human rights, he said, noting that his country supported the work of the Human Rights Council’s Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The United States looked forward to receiving her next report, and to a more inclusive, deliberative approach to such vital issues in Geneva than had been seen in New York.

He said his delegation had hoped to negotiate and ultimately join the consensus on a text that would uphold the process under way at the Human Rights Council. Instead, the text fell far short of enjoying unanimous support among States and might even undermine the work under way in Geneva. It described the right to water and sanitation in a way not reflected in existing international law since there was no ''right to water and sanitation'' in an international legal sense, as described by the resolution.

Expressing regret that the text had diverted the Assembly from the serious international efforts under way to promote greater coordination on water and sanitation issues, he said it attempted to take a short cut around the serious work of formulating, articulating and upholding universal rights. It had not been drafted in a transparent, inclusive manner, and neither the Assembly, nor the Geneva process had yet considered fully the legal implications of a declared right to water. For those reasons, the United States had called for a vote and would abstain in the voting, he said.
Confusing, yes? The U.S. representative called for the vote, but also abstained from the vote. It was also at a time when the one person who could have presented overwhelming factual evidence to engender support for the resolution, the Independent Expert appointed by the Human Rights Council, was on the other side of the world at a meeting in Japan. But this "historical" event was truly an American thing, you see: this was the equivalent of a poll of voters ahead of the real action, by which decisions would be made and resources committed by a small and well-versed number of participants. The U.S. has here drawn out the essence of how deeply politicized the subject of "basic human rights" really can become, although here the political battleground is the sum total of the Earth's under-valued, over-priced, variously-privatized and unevenly-distributed freshwater resources and its intersection with the developing countries of the world, almost all of whom voted for the resolution.

This is the key differentiation to be made: with few exceptions (Western Europe, for example), almost all of those who voted for the Resolution would require direct foreign aid from the traditional donor countries, almost all of whom abstained from the vote, in order to make any progress toward the intended outcome. The traditional donor countries, on the other hand, put off their commitment to such an effort because they are (a) still counting the potential cost, (b) are dealing with their own crumbling infrastructure at the turn of a renewal cycle, and/or (c) waiting for some poorly-publicized and likely understaffed process in Geneva to come forward with its carefully-worded international treaty that could well have binding implications for signatories. I'll come back to that idea in a couple more paragraphs.

So a good question to ask at this point, since these poll results might still give us some real insight, is "Who else abstained?"


Click on the map for a larger version. I made it using a blank map from Wikipedia, so you're welcome to use it elsewhere, but please link back to this post or otherwise let me know if you do use it somewhere. Anyway, we see that, yes, much of the global population is in favor of such a right to water and sanitation. But knowing full well that the UN Resolution was non-binding; that it meant no commitment to pay for infrastructure and access in order to support, even enforce, such a right; still, several additional countries made the choice to abstain from the vote: Canada, Ethiopia, Australia, Greece, Denmark, and others...

I can posit a number of possible reasons for the "yes" votes. Not every country that voted in favor of the resolution fits into these broad categorizations, but I think these cover most of the world. Let's call it a "weight-of-evidence, sense-of-history" approach:
  1. They are relatively water-rich and have a robust infrastructure, as is generally the case in western Europe. These are high-GDP nations in which fiscal health is not resource-dependent, but rather advanced in reliance on industrial, service and information economics. Both food security and public health are of no practical concern, and indeed are more often taken for granted than examined in detail. These are, with some exceptions, countries counted in the G-8, or at least in the G-20.

  2. They are relatively water-rich but in need of funds, expertise, direction and/or time to build the required infrastructure to meet the needs of their populations, as we can see in much of South America, Southeast Asia, India, China and Russia. These are moderate-GDP nations with some resource-dependence but also a growing reliance on industrial and service economies, which can scale rapidly under the right conditions. Food security is a minor concern, but public health is a consistent issue where education and medical resources are in short supply outside of major urban areas.

  3. They are water-poor but otherwise resource-rich, and have established only the minimum industrial economy necessary to support the population that is required to extract and process those resources and otherwise support the command economy that the government has mandated. These are moderate-GDP nations for which this statistic is skewed heavily by the small percentage of highly wealthy people who control the resource economy, leaving the long tail at the poor end of the distribution to themselves and their own devices. Food security is a major concern, as irrigation in river valleys depends on annual flood cycles and is thus vulnerable to drought and the degradation of already-minimal infrastructure, which is maintained primarily by the manual labor of individual farmers and villages. Public health would be of concern if the government provided any such services, but they probably don't, unless one works for the government itself. The wealthy can find health care when and where they need it, while those in poverty rely on NGOs where those can be found.

  4. They are just simply poor, with little water or other natural blessings on which to build a resource-based economy, and with very little industry in only the most isolated locations. Food security is non-existent, with a heavy reliance on international assistance in times of drought because the only domestic agriculture is rain-fed, not irrigated by river floods or manual labor or state works or any other method. It's all a family can do, simply to survive off the land from one week or month to the next, let alone through a drought year. Public health isn't a concern even in the crowded capitals, where near-permanent NGO facilities remain the only providers.
So what would a full, binding "Human Right to Water and Sanitation" mean to these various countries? Basically, ensuring access to adequate water and sanitation is a guarantee of one of the most fundamental human needs, regardless of ability to pay for that access. The right to life, simply living, with a reduced proximity to illness and death, is advocated in this proposal. In the U.S. we take for granted our "inalienable rights ... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," in the words of Thomas Jefferson, himself a champion of the burgeoning agricultural economy of the 18th-century United States. But mere access to water and sanitation certainly does not guarantee liberty, or even happiness, and not even necessarily life. It could help, if the activity to make such a provision is carried out in a manner beneficial to the people and their countries. Such a Human Right could lift whole regions from poverty, an existence of subsistence into which too many are born.

But still, it's a UN resolution. It is a non-binding declaration of the wishes expressed on behalf of the people who sent representatives to the UN General Assembly. It's not a law, not a budget item, not a commitment or pledge of assistance from one country to another. It is really just a piece of paper, a message of intent. It is simply this: a call to action. What really matters is what the numerous governments and NGOs do with that kind of call. Whoever answers the call gets to decide when, where and how much they can commit to the cause. In this case, and at this time, when we are not even sure that the Millennium Development Goals oriented on water, sanitation and the environment can still be reached (Goal 7), the UN Resolution on a Human Right to Water and Sanitation goes even farther in its goal. Instead of just halving the proportion of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water, we who support such a resolution aim to reduce that proportion to zero. To do so will take time, and talent, and lots of money to get the right ideas and technologies to the right places. But that is the very goal of a growing number of people and groups around the world.

Just recently, the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security was celebrated. Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, who was honored in 1997 for her leadership and advocacy in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), is now a member of the Nobel Women's Initiative and had much to say on the occasion. That campaign led to the international Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 and, more recently, the international Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. The U.S., among several other heavily militarized countries, has yet to ratify either of these. Does that call into question the efficacy of UN resolutions? Not at all, according to Ms. Williams. In reference to UNSC Resolution 1325 and its potential for results, compared with the process she experienced with and results achieved from the ICBL, she said this:
"It’s a tool, and the utility of a tool depends on how it is perceived and how activists employ it. Just because the United Nations passes a resolution does not in itself mean anything. In and of itself, it’s just words on a piece of paper. You have to have civil society involved pressing government to see that these policy tools are used. Governments are not enthusiastically enforcing these policies if civil society isn't pushing...

"The reason [the ICBL] worked was because activists used it. So we have this resolution. Great; so what? Tell me how we can get people fired up on the ground. We need to take a coordinated look at this and say, 'What is the leverage point? Where do we push?' Since 1981, that has been my experience: that people need to understand policy as it relates to their own role. In ten years that hasn't happened for [UNSC Resolution] 1325. We need to be educated about 1325 and how it can be used practically on the ground."
It is a message not simply of hope, but of effort and strategy, that Ms. Williams emphasizes here, and I think it's not just about UNSC Resolution 1325.
"You have to keep at it...It is going to take decades of pushing. You have to recognize that and not think you are going to change it overnight."
The same message applies to the presently uncoordinated campaign for improvements in freshwater availability in developing countries, as listed in the MDGs, as well an an eventual Human Right to Water: the UN resolution means little on its own, but can lead to great things when knowledgeable leaders and civil society get in on the effort.

No comments: