On 15 June, the UK government, which until now has not recognised the human right to sanitation, announced that they are in a position to support the inclusion of commitments to the right both to safe drinking water and to sanitation as a human right in the Rio+20 outcome document.
The statement was made by Lord de Mauley who is a spokesperson in the House of Lords for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in response to a question from Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead.
Although it has long recognised the right to water, the UK abstained from voting on the resolution on the right to water and sanitation at the UN General Assembly in 2010. The UK stated that it did not believe that there was a sufficient legal basis under international law to declare sanitation as a human right. Because the right to sanitation is not specifically provided for under any of the international human rights treaties, the UK felt it would undermine the human rights framework to do so through a resolution in the Human Rights Council.
Since the announcement, the UK government has confirmed that it has now reviewed its legal position and “recognises the right to sanitation as an element of the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living under article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” This is a significant shift in position and should mean that the UK will no longer be blocking text on the right to both safe and clean drinking water and to sanitation at negotiations such as Rio+20.
The Government will shortly be issuing a statement fully setting out its view on the legal scope of the right. Whilst the right is a significant and symbolic step forward, what is most important is implementation, making sure that enabling policies, finance and mechanisms are put in place to ensure the provision of basic water and safe sanitation services for all.