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UN Resolution on the right to water and the “Geneva Process”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

UN finally adopted the text Resolution on the right to water and sanitation (122 in favour, 0 against and 41 abstentions) yesterday. I had predicted that more vagueness on the text may be necessary in order to attract a higher degree of compromise. I have not seen the adopted text myself, but the UN press release mention Spain’s position which may depicts the trade-off:

Still, water and sanitation were components of the right to a suitable life under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, he said, expressing regret that proposals to include language on the independent expert’s work had not been taken into account

But anyway, this is just my guess.

What is more interesting the reference from the representatives towards the “Geneva Process”. Some expressed their disappointment that the Resolution was too premature. The UK voted abstention under the reason that:

… the text pre-empted the work going on in the Human Rights Council, she said, noting that the United Kingdom had supported the resolution establishing the independent expert, as well as the text on human rights and access to safe water and sanitation, adopted in 2009.  Indeed, the work in Geneva had been progressing, she added.

Similar stance was adopted by the US:


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.

and Turkey:

The representative of Turkey, recalling that the Human Rights Council had recently created the mandate of the independent expert and passed a resolution on the same subject, said the matter was before the Council and the Geneva process was ongoing.  The text prejudged the outcome of those discussions and Turkey would therefore abstain from the vote.


It appears to me that states who were previously thought to vote against the resolution are now moving their stance into ‘abstention’ instead by citing the ongoing process in Geneva.


Germany who had been quite active in the human right to water movement, on the other hand, perceives that the Resolution text is not a threat to the Geneva process:

Unlike some, Germany saw the text not as a threat to the European Union-led “ Geneva process” on water and sanitation, but rather as another component of that process, he stressed.  At the same time, Germany would have preferred that the text include more language proposed by the European Union.  It nevertheless included important elements of the work going on within the Human Rights Council and that of the independent expert on the subject.  Germany invited delegations to support and participate actively in the Geneva process in order fully to understand the right to water and sanitation.

Hence, I don’t really know if this move towards a resolution is somewhat premature – as the Independent Expert will only complete and report her work by next year – and therefore counterproductive or this is somehow some sort of diplomatic fait accompli with the purpose of safeguarding the Human Right to Water movement by giving it a more weigh through a resolution and at the same time giving direction to the Geneva process.

Just to note, literature provide explanation as to the genealogy of the right to water movement (see paper by Bakker here – you may need an access). On the one hand, there is the anti-privatization movement which utilizes the language of human right to water in their campaign against privatization and on the other hand, there is the ‘alter-globalization’ movement which also seeks to foreclose the neoliberalization of water resources and services but does not utilize the language of human rights. They use the language of the ‘commons’ instead.

Bakker noted in her paper that the campaign against privatization by utilizing the human right to water language are prone to fallacies. Indeed, right to water activists tend to conflate human rights with property rights. If water is a human right, then it should not be a commodity – they think. This is inherently wrong. The right to life does not entitle you not to pay the emergency room service fee, or your medication. The same works for the right to food or education and other rights. Water is by no means different from them.

This is proven by the recent report (see previous post) arising out of the the Geneva Process. It is explicitly stated there (see Para.63) that:

The human rights framework does not call for any particular form of service provision. It is well established that, from a human rights perspective, States can opt to involve non-State actors in sanitation and water services provision. But the State cannot exempt itself from its human rights obligations and hence remains the primary duty-bearer.

That paragraph should sent a blunt message to anti-water privatization movement that their endeavour in foreclosing the neoliberalization of the water sector through human rights language may not  be successful.

Relevant posts:

Draft UNGA Resolution on the Right to Water – What is Indonesia’s Diplomatic Position?
Human Right  Aspects of Private Sector Participation in the Water Sector
Is water a commodity or human rights?
The human right to water is not a property right
Why busy with the right to water instead of governance
Consultation on the Human Right  Aspects of Private Sector Participation in the Water Sector: more responses from the private sector
The Economist and the human right to water
Transparency Agenda in Water Utilities Regulation
Safeguarding water contracts in Indonesia
Constitutional Court review and the future of water law in Indonesia
Anticipating water trade