Progress so far

The human rights to water and sanitation were already enshrined in international treaties, declarations, and instruments for many years. It however took until 2010 to gain full political recognition through resolutions by both the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. Since then, the content of the rights has been further defined and developed. This takes place through inter alia UN resolutions, the work of the UN Special Rapporteur, international conferences, and international declarations.

Resolutions

The recognition of and support for the human rights to water and sanitation have developed significantly over recent years. Some of the international resolutions are listed below, which have further defined the rights over the last few years. These resolutions provide further detail on the content and obligations stemming from the rights, which helps support States to realise these rights nationally.

Through yearly resolutions on the rights, the recognition is reaffirmed, and the content continuously further defined. See this publication for an overview of resolutions and declarations that recognise the human rights to water and sanitation between 1994 and 2014.

UN Human Rights Council Resolutions

  • September 2010: Resolution A/HRC/RES/15/9 affirms that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the human right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity. The right to an adequate standard of living is contained in different human rights treaties, namely the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).  By connecting the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation with other human rights and with fundamental principles such as human dignity, the Human Rights Council clarified that these rights are part of binding international human rights law. This makes them relevant even in countries that may not be party to the treaties named here, but that are party to treaties recognising human rights whose content requires access to water and sanitation.
  • September 2014: The most recent Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/27/7 contains the definition of the entitlements regarding water and sanitation respectively in human rights terms.

General Assembly Resolutions 

  • August 2010: Resolution A/RES/64/292 for the second time recognised the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.
  • December 2015: The most recent General Assembly Resolution (currently unavailable) for the first time recognises the distinction between the human right to water and the human right to sanitation. The General Assembly also endorsed a strong definition of these rights, highlights many gender-specific human rights impacts of inadequate water and sanitation services and reaffirms the importance of accountability.

Click here for more Human Rights Council Resolutions on the human rights to water and sanitation.

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) is the treaty body responsible for monitoring State compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The CESCR issues General Comments, which are authoritative interpretations of the Covenant; clarifying the content of human rights. General Comments are used to help monitor the compliance of States parties to the Covenant. The CESCR issued  General Comment No. 15 on the right to water in 2002 and the Statement on Sanitation in 2010, explaining the content and meaning of both the right to water and to sanitation.

Click here to find out more on the work of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Work of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation

The Special Rapporteur focuses on pertinent issues concerning the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation. The reports of the Special Rapporteur analyse common challenges in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation and give recommendations to states.

Click here for more details on the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo Heller.

Commitments made at international summits, forums and conferences

Although policy commitments made at international summits, forums and conferences (often laid down in declarations) are not legally binding on States, they have a beneficial impact on the further defining and realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation, because:

  • Political commitments undertaken by individual states provide a basis for lobbying in that country and for mobilising community action.
  • They provide a basis for holding governments politically accountable for their action and inaction.
  • The adoption of a number of international policy commitments and declarations on water issues represents global consensus on agreed priorities.
  • As international events often focus on a certain topic, they lead to an increasing awareness of particular problems individuals and groups face with regard to their rights to water and sanitation. Issues for example include the crisis of water resources in cities as a result of rapid urbanisation, gender inequalities and unequal cost burdens born by the poor.

For more information on international summits, forums and conferences, see International conferences.

Sanitation and Water for all (SWA)

SWA is a global partnership of developing country governments, donors, civil society organisations and other development partners working together to catalyse political leadership and action, improve accountability and use scarce resources more effectively.

Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) held it’s third global High Level Meeting (HLM) convened by UNICEF and hosted by the World Bank in Washington DC on 11 April 2014. The outcomes and content of the SWA High Level Commitments Dialogue and the April 2014 HLM meetings have provided high-level political guidance and encouragement on action. Ministers left the 2014 HLM with their own clear commitments and, having heard commitments of other countries, a refreshed understanding of global sector trends, achievements and challenges.

Want to know more about the High Level Meetings and what commitments are made? Visit the website of Sanitation and Water for All.