Why don’t Clegg & Cameron think clean water & sanitation are human rights?

Last week, the UN General Assembly made history with its declaration that water and sanitation are human rights to which all people are entitled. The resolution was the fruit of many years’ labour by campaigners from around the world, and was eventually passed by 122 votes in favour to none against, with 41 abstentions. So why did the UK’s new Lib-Con government mount such a furious campaign against it?

Our guest writer is John Hilary, executive director of War on Want

Last week, the UN General Assembly made history with its declaration that water and sanitation are human rights to which all people are entitled. The resolution was the fruit of many years’ labour by campaigners from around the world, and was eventually passed by 122 votes in favour to none against, with 41 abstentions. So why did the UK’s new Lib-Con government mount such a furious campaign against it?

The resolution itself was a simple one, with just three paragraphs of text after the preamble. The first paragraph contains the key statement that the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is “a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”.

The rest of the text then calls for international efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all, and welcomes the ongoing efforts of the independent expert working on the issue under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Why was this so threatening to David Cameron’s government? Back in November 2006, the Labour government’s international development secretary, Hilary Benn, was happy to announce that the UK did indeed recognise the human right to water.

Yet in the run-up to last week’s vote, the new UK government joined forces with Canada and the USA in a concerted effort to undermine the UN resolution, arguing that there was no legal right to water or sanitation and that we should simply wait for the independent expert in Geneva to continue her research.

The UK government had particularly sought to kill the momentum behind the resolution by persuading other EU countries not to support it. This tactic failed, as many European countries declared themselves unwilling to join the UK in opposing the right to water and sanitation. In the end Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain all voted for the resolution, while none were prepared to vote against. Even the UK could eventually only bring itself to abstain.

The significance of declaring water and sanitation to be a human right is that it places an obligation on every state to provide those services to all its citizens, irrespective of their ability to pay. This in turn is often interpreted as a threat to the project of water privatisation, since in many countries – particularly in the global South – handing over control of municipal water systems to the private sector has seen the price of water raised far beyond what poorer families can afford.

As already noted eight years ago by the UN’s committee on economic, social and cultural rights in its general comment on the right to water, such “unaffordable increases” in the price of water should be seen as a violation of the right to water. This has led some private water companies themselves to question whether privatisation of water systems is compatible with the goal of extending water and sanitation services to all.

One possible reason, then, for the UK government’s opposition to the UN resolution is that it did not wish to jeopardise future involvement of British companies seeking to take on privatisation contracts in the water and sanitation sectors of foreign countries. Yet if that were the case, why did France, Spain and Germany all feel able to support the resolution, given that they each have their own private sector water companies operating around the world?

So maybe the reason is to be found in the Lib-Con government’s ideological bias against the idea that people’s rights might take precedence over market solutions. If there was some such thinking behind the UK’s opposition to the UN resolution, it has not been forthcoming. One of the officials whom I asked for the rationale behind the government’s change of heart told me bluntly that they would not share such details with the outside world. Or in other words, draw your own conclusions.

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