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United Nations Adopts Resolution Recognizing Human Right to Water and Sanitation

July 29, 2010

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations adopted a nonbinding resolution that recognizes the human right to water and sanitation. The resolution, which was introduced to the U.N. General Assembly by Bolivia, passed by a vote of 122 to 0 with 41 countries, including the United States, abstaining.

The resolution's adoption is an important expression of the will of the world community and a historic step towards water justice. It "declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life."

There are currently 884 million people without access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation. Approximately 1.5 million children die each year of water and sanitation-related diseases.

The resolution supports important elements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a comprehensive set of time-bound initiatives adopted in 2000 to define and provide benchmarks for global antipoverty efforts. Specifically, the resolution helps advance the MDG that urges governments to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015. It also supports the work of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council Independent Expert (IE) Catarina de Albuquerque. Her research will define the human-rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation and how they can be implemented. The U.N. resolution invites her to report annually to the General Assembly.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, UUSC worked with allies in faith communities and socially responsible investment firms to encourage the United States to support the U.N. resolution by consensus. Such allies included the Church World Service, Water Advocates, and other members of the Religious Working Group on Water as well as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and other socially responsible investors such as Northstar Asset Management and Boston Common Asset Management.  

As the text of the final resolution developed, it became clear that the United States would not be able to vote for it as presented. The resolution did not include provisions acknowledging that, in the United States, the "advice and consent" of the Senate are required in order to commit the nation to international obligations, including human-rights treaties within which the human right to water would be embodied. Accordingly, the United States chose to abstain on procedural grounds, rather than vote against the resolution.

In a public statement, John F. Sammis, U.S. deputy representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, raised concerns about the process, but explained the following:

"The United States is deeply committed to finding solutions to our world's water challenges. We support the goal of universal access to safe drinking water. Water and sanitation issues will be an important focus at this September's Millennium Development Goal Summit. The United States is committed to working with our development partners to build on the progress they have already made in these areas as part of their national development strategies. Water is essential for all life on earth. Accordingly, safe and accessible water supplies further the realization of certain human rights, and there are human-rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation."

The U.S. position in support of efforts to progressively realize the human right to water and sanitation and the U.N. Human Rights Council process is a very positive step, amounting to a sea change from previous administrations' view of the human right to water. (Read the full text of the United States' prepared remarks.)

The world is listening, and the movement for the human right to water is growing. UUSC and our allies have an important role to play in ensuring forward momentum on efforts to protect vulnerable communities. UUSC is working with partners and allies to establish policies at the local, state, and national levels and to lift up these urgent human-rights issues in the international arena.

UUSC and our partners have been invited to Geneva in September 2010 to provide input to the U.N. Human Rights Council IE's efforts to define human rights obligations relating to water and sanitation access. The IE has also requested that she be permitted to officially visit the United States in 2011 to study model practices in the water and sanitation services sector. UUSC and allies are encouraging the U.S. State Department to accept the IE's mission. While no dates have been set, the State Department has given positive signals about the request. Under any scenario, the IE will continue her work to assist the Human Rights Council and member states of the United Nations to define the scope and content of the human right to water and sanitation.

View the webcast of the General Assembly meeting. The resolution is discussed at approximately 15 minutes into the webcast. The "Geneva Process" that the speakers refer to is the U.N. Human Rights Council process headed by the IE. You can also learn more from U.N. meeting coverage

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