International water law and the long path towards the human rights dimension: the UNECE Water and Health protocol


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Publication Title

International water law and the long path towards the human rights dimension: the UNECE Water and Health Protocol

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Professor Attila Tanzi, University of Bologna, Italy

Publication Date

26 Nov 2008


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International water law has developed for centuries as a set of general rules addressing the relations between co-riparian States of transboundary watercourses. The exercise of national sovereignty over purely domestic watercourses has for long been outside the scope of international law due to the old-fashioned “domestic jurisdiction” principle.

Furthermore, international water law, until recently, has focussed primarily, if not exclusively on the economic aspects of competing claims by co-riparian States on the apportionment of water, totally aside of environmental concerns. It has been only through the recent entry of the environmental dimension into the water law process that human needs have received some recognition within the body of international water law. This has been the result of the building up of a number of soft-law and conventional instruments separate from those making up the human rights law process.

The key catalyst of the gradual shift from an exclusively economy focussed branch of international law to one also, if not primarily, addressing environmental concerns, has undoubtedly been the concept of sustainability as applied to the use and management of international watercourses. This emerges from the UNECE 1992 Helsinki Convention on transboundary watercourses, as well as from the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention.

The relevance of human needs recently introduced into international water law thanks to its recent environmental shift applies only to inter-State relations concerning merely transboundary watercourses. This approach is admittedly a far cry from an international human rights law approach. However separate form the human rights law process, international water law, by expanding consideration of environmental concerns so as to encompass those on human health, has produced an international instrument - the UNECE 1999 London Protocol on Water and Health, entered into force in 2005 - that may well represent a concrete tool for the implementation of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. This may be particularly so in consideration of the recent establishment of a Compliance Committee under the Protocol at issue.

The relation will be shortly analysed of the UNECE Protocol on Water and Health to the main tenets of the right of access to water under human rights law. Special reference will be made to the following discrete issue: (a) the progressive vs. self-executing nature of the right in point: the due diligence nature of the corresponding State obligations; (b) the economic regulatory implications of the “public good” nature of water; (c) international cooperation vs. holistic co-ordination.


See also

Background Paper on Water and Health for the COP workshop Bucharest, 2008

Water-related Legislation and Conventions

Protocol on Water and Health

External Resources


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