International timeline

Below is a timeline documenting the development of the right to water and sanitation in international human rights and humanitarian law. This international framework provides the legal basis for the rights.

September 2010 United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on Human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation

The resolution, adopted by consensus by the Human Rights Council, affirms that the right to water and sanitation are part of existing international law. This body has therefore confirmed that these rights are legally binding upon States.

This is an important step, States parties to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights can no longer deny their responsibility to provide safe water and sanitation for all individuals.

For full text of the resolution see the UN website.
The Independent Expert on human rights, water and sanitation, Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, welcomes the resolution, to read her response see the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

July 2010 United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the right to water and sanitation

The General Assembly formally recognised the right to water and sanitation by supporting the Resolution initiated by Bolivia on 28 July, 2010. The Resolution 64/ 292 acknowledges that clean drinking water and sanitation are integral to the realisation of all human rights. The Resolution also welcomes the important work carried out by the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation and welcomes her presentation of an annual report to the General Assembly.

The Resolution also calls upon States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help build capacity and transfer technology to help other countries to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

Whilst it is non binding and a long way from a treaty on the right to water and sanitation it is still a welcome step in the right direction.

For the full proceedings of this vote see the UN General Assembly press release.

2009 Report of the Independent Expert on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Related to Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

Catarina de Albuquerque’s first report as Independent Expert on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Related to Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation focused on the human rights obligations related to sanitation. Albuquerque defines the inextricable links between sanitation and fundamental human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate housing, the right to health, the right to education, the right to water, the right to work, the right to life, the prohibition of inhumane or degrading treatment and the prohibition of all form of discrimination. However, she claims that the right to sanitation should not only be recognised in relation to these rights, but should be recognised as a distinct right to fully capture all of the dimensions.

September 2008 Catarina de Albuquerque is appointed as the Independent Expert

In September 2008, the Human Rights Council appointed Catarina de Albuquerque as the Independent Expert. She began her mandate on 1 November 2008.

Catarina de Albuquerque has already conducted a number of country visits, where she examines the state of water and sanitation at the national and local level, identifies good practice, makes recommendations to the government on steps to improve access and to ensure protection of the human rights.

Following her mandate she communicates with civil society organisations to identify, promote and exchange views on best practices related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The Independent Expert can therefore be used as a tool to voice concerns over specific issues.

March 2008 Human Rights Council Resolution on Human Rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation

On 28 March 2008, the Human Rights Council adopted by consensus Resolution 7/22, appointing an Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The Human Rights Council refers directly to the explicit obligations regarding access to safe drinking water and sanitation within numerous human rights treaties. Thus the Human Rights Council clearly recognises that all governments are bound by human rights obligations to ensure access to safe water and sanitation for all.

Although it is criticised for not explicitly referring to an inherent right to water, it clearly places the issue of the safe water and sanitation on the Councils agenda.

The main areas of the mandate reflect the issues that the High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out requiring further elaboration. These are:

– the normative content of human rights obligations in relation to access to sanitation

– the human rights obligations attached to the elaboration of a national strategy on water and sanitation

– the regulation of the private sector in the context of private provision of safe drinking water and sanitation

– criteria to protect the right to safe drinking water and sanitation in case of disconnection

– the specific obligations of local authorities

The Resolution appoints the position for a period of three years, and requires the independent expert to submit a report, including conclusions and recommendations, to the Council at its tenth session. The Resolution confirmed the Independent Expert’s mandate to be:

(a) To develop a dialogue with Governments, the relevant United Nations bodies, the private sector, local authorities, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and academic institutions, to identify, promote and exchange views on best practices related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and, in that regard, to prepare a compendium of best practices

(b) To advance the work by undertaking a study, in cooperation with and reflecting the views of Governments and relevant United Nations bodies, and in further cooperation with the private sector, local authorities, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and academic institutions, on the further clarification of the content of human rights obligations, including non-discrimination obligations, in relation to access to safe drinking water and sanitation;

(c) To make recommendations that could help the realization of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular of Goal 7;

(d) To apply a gender perspective, including through the identification of gender-specific vulnerabilities;

(e) To work in close coordination, while avoiding unnecessary duplication, with other special procedures and subsidiary organs of the Council, relevant United Nations bodies and the treaty bodies, and taking into account the views of other stakeholders, including relevant regional human rights mechanisms, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and academic institutions.

Through establishing an Independent Expert the UN human rights system now has a separate mechanism exclusively dedicated to issues related to the right to water and sanitation.

2007 Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments

In 2006 the Human Rights Council passed resolution 2/104 entitled ‘Human Rights and Access to Water’. The Council requested that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights conduct a study upon, “the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments”.

The Report was published in 2007. In the Report, the High Commissioner for Human Rights states that ‘it is now the time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, defined as the right to equal and non- discriminatory access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses… to sustain life and health’

The report discusses relevant international human rights obligations, reviewing their scope and content, nature and monitoring and suggests areas that need further elaboration. These issues highlighted, formed the basis of the Independent Expert’s mandate.

2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

This is a legally binding treaty. States parties are obligated to fulfil certain rights concerning individuals with disabilities.

Article 28, defines the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living, including social protection, obligating States to ensure equal access by persons with disabilities to clean water services.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. For more information please see Monitoring Bodies.

For more information on International Treaties please see What is a Treaty.

2002 General Comment No. 15- Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

General Comment 15 interprets the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights confirming the right to water in international law.

‘the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses’.

Although the General Comment is not legally binding, and cannot create new laws or State obligations, the Committee is a body with the authority to interpret the provisions, clarifying content, and confirming issues that may have been disputed.

This Comment provides guidelines for the interpretation of the right to water, framing it within two articles, Article 11, the right to an adequate standard of living, and Article 12, the right to health.

The Comment clearly outlines States parties obligations to the right and defines what actions would constitute as a violation. For further explanation see the breakdown of obligations and violations.

Following the Committee’s clarification of core obligations in General Comment 3, this General Comment defines 9 core obligations to the right to water. These are the minimum essential levels that States parties are obligated to fulfil regardless of their state of development. The Committee confirms that a number of these are of immediate effect, for further explanation see the core obligations.

Therefore, while the General Comment recognises that full realisation of the right to water is not immediately enforceable for all States, there are immediate steps that the State must take towards the realisation.

The General Comment reasserts the essential role of international co-operation and assistance to achieve the full realisation of the right to water. It urges the international community to ensure that the right to water is given due attention in international agreements, specifically noting that agreements concerning trade liberalisation should not inhibit the realisation of the right to water.

Please view the complete text of General Comment 15.

1999 Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and Lakes

The right to water has also been implicitly confirmed in the Protocol on Water and Health. The convention is intended to strengthen national measure for the protection and ecologically sound management of water resources. Article 5, states that ‘equitable access to water, adequate in terms both of quantity and quality, should be provided for all members of the population’

1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child

This convention incorporates specific civil and political and economic, cultural and social rights of the child. It specifically focuses upon giving children a voice and representation.

This convention is the second explicit reference to the right to water; Article 24, gives the child the right to health, placing the obligation upon the State to implement this right, especially through appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition, through the provision of adequate nutritious food and clean drinking water.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly clarified that the entitlement to an adequate standard of living (Article 27) includes access to clean drinking water and latrines (see for example, concluding observations of the committee of the rights of the child: Ethiopia).

The Committee on the Rights of the Child is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

International convention specifically focusing on the rights of women, including the right to non discrimination and the right to participation

This is the first time the right to water and sanitation is explicitly mentioned in an international legally binding convention : Article 14.2(h) states that women have the right to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply.

The Committee on the Elimination of the Discrimination against Women is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women .

1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

This is a legally binding treaty, States parties are obligated to protect, respect and fulfill rights such as the right to health, the right to housing, and the right to work.

As the fulfilment of these rights includes the allocation of resources, and may not be immediately achievable Article 2, obligates States to take steps towards the progressive realization of the rights, allocating the maximum of their available resources

Although the right to water is not explicitly stated in the convention, it has been interpreted that the right to water can be deduced from Article 11, the right to an adequate standard of living, and Article 12, the right to health. Please see General Comment 15.

Virtually all States that have ratified the International C0venant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have acknowledged in political declarations that the right to an adequate standard of living necessarily includes water and sanitation.

State Parties to the convention are required to make use of, “all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures” in order to implement the obligations. For this purpose, States must review existing legislation, strategies and policies to ensure that they are compatible with obligations arising from the right to water and sanitation, and repeal or change them when necessary. Please view the States that have enshrined the right to water and sanitation in their national legislation for more information.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is responsible for monitoring the implementation of this treaty.

1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

This is a legally binding treaty, States parties are obligated to protect, respect and fulfill rights such as the right to life, the right to dignity, and the right to self determination.

This covenant contains certain freedoms, such as freedom from torture, as such it is recognised that these rights must be immediately realised.

The right to water or sanitation is not explicitly defined within this Covenant but as water is vital for human life, and both unsafe water and lack of sanitation are the world’s biggest killers the right to life cannot be ensured without the full recognition of these rights.

To see how Civil and Political rights could be used to secure access to water please see the India case.

The Human Rights Committee is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

1949 Geneva Conventions

The four Geneva Conventions protect civilians and combatants during armed conflict. The fundamental principal is that the individual should not be indiscriminately affected by conflict, it seeks to maintain individual dignity and thus confirms the supply of basic needs, including water, during times of war. The Additional Protocols define that Civilians or Civilian Objects shall not be targets for attack, thus elements essential for human survival are prohibited from attack, including water facilities.

The special recognition of water within humanitarian law is extremely supportive of the individual right to water.

The Conventions entitle Prisoners of War access to water and sanitation in situations of armed conflict and occupation.

The Geneva conventions are universally ratified, meaning that these provisions are legally binding upon all States. Also many of the provisions in the Additional Protocols are recognised as customary law and are therefore binding on all States, even those that have not ratified these instruments

Geneva Convention III (1949) – Treatment of Prisoners of War

Article 20
The Detaining Power shall supply prisoners of war who are being evacuated with sufficient food and potable water, and with the necessary clothing and medical attention.

Article 26
… Sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to prisoners of war.

Article 29
The Detaining Power shall be bound to take all sanitary measures necessary to ensure the cleanliness and healthfulness of camps and to prevent epidemics

Prisoners of war shall have for their use, day and night, conveniences which conform to the rules of hygiene and are maintained in a constant state of cleanliness. In any camps in which women prisoners of war are accommodated, separate conveniences shall be provided for them.

Also, apart from the baths and showers with which the camps shall be furnished prisoners of war shall be provided with sufficient water and soap for their personal toilet and for washing their personal laundry; the necessary installations, facilities and time shall be granted them for that purpose.

Article 46
The Detaining Power shall supply prisoners of war during transfer with sufficient food and drinking water to keep them in good health, likewise with the necessary clothing, shelter and medical attention.

Geneva Convention IV (1949) – Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War

Article 85
The Detaining Power is bound to take all necessary and possible measures to ensure that protected persons shall, from the outset of their internment, be accommodated in buildings or quarters which afford every possible safeguard as regards hygiene and health…Internees shall have for their use, day and night, sanitary conveniences which conform to the rules of hygiene, and are constantly maintained in a state of cleanliness. They shall be provided with sufficient water and soap for their daily personal toilet and for washing their personal laundry; installations and facilities necessary for this purpose shall be granted to them. Showers or baths shall also be available…

Article 89
…Sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to internees….

Article 127
The Detaining Power shall supply internees during transfer with drinking water and food sufficient in quantity, quality and variety to maintain them in good health, and also with the necessary clothing, adequate shelter and the necessary medical attention.

Additional Protocol I (1977)- Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict

Article 54
2. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party.

3. The prohibitions in paragraph 2 shall not apply to such of the objects covered by it as are used by an adverse Party: (b) – If not as sustenance, then in direct support of military action, provided, however, that in no event shall actions against these objects be taken which may be expected to leave the civilian population with such inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation or force its movement.

 

Additional Protocol II (1977) – Protection of Victims of Non-international Armed Conflict

Article 5
b. Persons whose liberty has been restricted…shall, to the same extent as the local civilian population, be provided with food and drinking water and be afforded safeguards as regards health and hygiene.

Article 14
It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as food-stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of food-stuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.

1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This declaration contains 30 articles which define both civil and political rights and economic, cultural and social rights. Although it is not legally binding it is recognised as the basis to all universal human rights.