A UN Convention on the Right to Water - An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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This article is based on an article by Maude Barlow, co-founder of the Blue Planet Project which works internationally for the right to water.

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A UN Convention on the Right to Water

All over the world, groups fighting for local water rights are championing an international instrument on the right to water. Increasingly, the demand is for a United Nations Convention that would serve as a model for nation-state constitutions. While grassroots struggles for water security will continue to be the most important part of the global water justice movement, it is becoming clear that a proactive goal to unite the movement is crucial.

For the past 15 years, the World Bank and other regional development banks have promoted a private model of water development in the global South. This model has proven to be a failure. High water rates, cut-offs to the poor, reduced services, broken promises and pollution have been the legacy of privatization. One important new study has confirmed that this experiment has actually led to a net reduction in water development in the global South as Northern governments and the banks have assumed that the private sector would bring in new investments, a promise that never materialized.

At the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City in March 2006, the UN cited the failure of privatization and called for governments to re-enter the water services arena. Calls for a UN Convention to re-assert the crucial role of government in supplying water to the poor increased dramatically at the Forum and new impetus was given to this campaign.

Why a UN Convention?

The fact that water is not an acknowledged human right has allowed decision-making over water policy to shift from the UN and governments toward institutions and organizations that favour the private water companies and the commodification of water. These institutions include the World Bank and other regional development banks, the World Water Council, the Global Water Partnership and the World Trade Organization.

Not only have these institutions vigorously promoted the interests of private water companies in the global South, they have also ceded to them much political control over water policy. In fact, the study Pipe Dreams by Public Services International and the World Development Movement, reported that the big water transnationals actually influence decision-making around which communities and countries will receive water services.

Many nation-state governments have gone along with this trend, allowing creeping privatization with little or no government oversight or public debate.

Behind the call for a binding instrument are questions of principle that must be decided soon as the world’s water sources become more depleted and fought over:

  • Is access to water a human right or just a need?
  • Is water a common good like air or a commodity like Coca Cola?
  • Who is being given the right or the power to turn the tap on or off, the people? Governments? Or the invisible hand of the market?
  • Who sets the price for a poor district in Manila or La Paz – the locally

elected water board or the CEO of Suez?

The global water crisis cries out for good governance; good governance needs binding, legal bases that rest on universally applicable human rights. Above all, it calls for the political will to act. It is also crucial to note that, because the operations of these water companies and the financial institutions that back them are now global, nation-state instruments to deal with water rights are no longer sufficient. International laws are needed to control the global reach of the water barons.

At the RIO Summit, key areas were targeted for action. Since that pivotal event, conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification have all been accomplished. But water, which was targeted as a priority area, has been neglected.

What is the Practical Use of a Convention?

Would a convention on water solve the world’s water crisis? Of course not. But it would frame water as a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity. As well, it would establish the indispensable legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.

A convention on the right to water would serve as a common, coherent body of rules for all nations and clarify the role of the state as a provider of clean, affordable water to all of its citizens. Such a convention would also safeguard already accepted human rights and environmental principles. It would also set principles and priorities for water use in a world destroying its water heritage. The convention envisaged would include language to protect water rights for the earth and other species and would address the urgent need for reclamation of polluted waters and an end to practices destructive of the world’s water sources.

A human rights convention or treaty imposes three obligations on nation states: 1. The Obligation to Respect, whereby the state must refrain from any action or policy that that interferes with the enjoyment of the human right; 2. The Obligation to Protect, whereby the state is obliged to prevent third parties (such as corporations) from interfering with the enjoyment of the human right; and 3. The Obligation to Fulfil, whereby the state is required to adopt any additional measures directed toward the realization of that right.

At a practical level, a right to water Convention gives citizens a tool to hold their governments accountable in their domestic courts and the “court” of public opinion, while also seeking international redress.

In Canada, the decision by the government to back away from its previous commitment to the Kyoto Accord has become highly contentious and given environmentalists in Canada and around the world a powerful focus for criticism. Had Kyoto not existed, the fight for good climate policy in Canada would be much more difficult.

A UN Convention could also include specific principles to ensure civil society involvement to convert that Convention into national law and national action plans. This would give citizens an additional constitutional tool in their fight for water.

Where is the Process Now?

The right to water has been recognized in a number of important international resolutions and declarations at the UN over the past decade. These include the 2000 General Assembly Resolution on the Right to Development; the 2004 Committee on Human Rights resolution on toxic wastes; and the May 2005 statement by the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement on the right to water for all. Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, called for the right to water in the Community of South American Nations. He has received a very favourable response from at least a dozen countries.

Most important is General Comment No. 15, adopted in 2002 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that recognized that the right to water is a prerequisite for realizing all other human rights and for leading a life in dignity. General Comment No. 15 is an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and an important milestone on the road to a binding UN convention.

In October 2006, several countries presented a resolution to the newly formed UN Human Rights Council requesting the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct a detailed study on the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to access to water under international human rights instruments, including recommendations for future action.

The countries that proposed this resolution are: Belgium, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cyprus, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Cameroon, and Bolivia. (Not all are members of the Council.) Also believed to be supportive are Spain, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Countries that are likely to oppose the resolution or who have serious reservations include India, Canada, the United States, China, Egypt and Australia. The next step is that the Council will vote on the resolution perhaps as early as during its next session at the end of November and can then appoint a Special Rapporteur which could then lead to a full formative resolution and an eventual Convention on the right to water. (Until recently, the United Kingdom was also opposed but responded to the November 2006 UNDP Annual Report, which focused on the global water crisis, by tentatively offering its first support of the right to water.)

Support among civil society groups around the world is growing rapidly.

Are there Countries that Might Champion A Strong Convention?

There is a fear among many grassroots groups that our movement has been too successful and that success may lead to a compromised Convention. Until recently, global institutions and big water companies opposed a right to water Convention. So did European countries such as France and Germany who are home to the big water companies. However, the momentum for a right to water instrument is growing around the world and it is clear it cannot be stopped.

So the position of the World Bank and the World Water Council has shifted. There is now an understanding that the call for the right to water is an idea whose time has come and those who opposed it until very recently have decided to help shape it so that the private sector is not excluded. This has given civil society great cause for alarm, as a convention that would protect the rights of corporations in the delivery of water would be worse than having no convention at all. Certainly, grassroots groups in the global South would never support a compromised instrument of any kind.

So civil society has been looking for a small number of nations from the global South and the global North to spearhead a more strongly worded resolution that would not only confirm that water is a public trust, but that water services should be delivered by governments on a not-for-profit basis. The two obvious first choices are Norway, which has announced it will no longer support any World Bank water project that imposes privatization as a condition for aid, and Bolivia, which has had terrible experiences with private water companies and is determined to return the oversight of its water systems to the public.

The hope is that, working with the global water justice movement, these two countries will begin to develop this instrument and enlist the support of other nation-states to a more strongly worded Convention. Discussions with both governments are underway and creating a great deal of interest.

It is crucial to find a group of countries that would champion a strongly worded Convention as well as address two shortcomings inherent in current human rights conventions: that is, it must bind international institutions and corporations and establish enforcement measures that provide effective remedies for individuals and communities denied their right to water. Further, our Convention must make it clear that, where there is a conflict between the human rights articulated in a UN instrument and the corporate rights inherent in trade agreements, UN-sanctioned human rights will prevail.

The right to water is an idea whose time has come. Let us make sure that no future generation ever again has to suffer from the horrors of living without clean water.


See also

Q&A: The Right to Water


A Human Rights-Based Approach (HRBA) to Improve Water Governance in Europe & CIS

External Resources

The Blue Planet Project


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