A New Opportunity on Human Rights

HRC Human rights advocates are thrilled with a recent decision by the Obama administration. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced it would seek a seat on the Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body within the U.N. system made up of 47 elected members. The U.N. Human Rights Council was created three years ago by the U.N. General Assembly with the main purpose of addressing human rights violations. At the time, the Bush administration and its ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, shunned the U.N. HR Council, consistent with the then U.S. policy of disengagement with the United Nations.

For water justice advocates, this is an interesting moment. Barely 10 days ago the United States government was in the forefront of efforts to thwart an initiative to declare water as a fundamental human right (meaning accessible and safe for all). The World Health Organization outlines the need for the right to water.

The venue was the triennial World Water Forum Ministerial in Istanbul from March 16-22. Though organized by the private French association World Water Council, this forum has evolved into one of the largest water events, and is accompanied by a ministerial session attended by most governments.Since 2000, the World Water Forum and its ministerial session has attracted protests and criticisms from rights advocates for its resistance to declare water as a fundamental human right.

In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a General Comment confirming the right to water. Yet in 2003, the World Water Forum ministerial would only declare that water is a human need. This was repeated in 2006.

At each World Water Forum, spanning both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the United States took the position that water is a need, not a right!

This year, at the World Water Forum, after failing to reach agreement on the right to water within the Forum Ministerial, 25 countries--led by Venezuela, Uruguay and Bolivia--signed on to a statement declaring water as a fundamental human right. In a sense, that statement was a victory for human rights activists. But the final statement that came out on March 22 still does not say water is a human right. It said: "We acknowledge the discussions with the UN system regarding human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation. We recognize that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need."

Unlike earlier ministerials, which had insisted that water was a human need, this one at least acknowledged the discussions in the U.N. system and left the decision to national spaces.

This acknowledgment was articulated best by U.S. State Department spokesman Andy Laine: "The United States does not oppose any government adopting a national right to water or sanitation as part of its own domestic policy. We do, however, have concerns with a statement that would require all countries to adopt a national right to water or sanitation or would establish an international right to water or sanitation."

Unfortunately, this position still undermines the work that has so far been done under the United Nations system toward the recognition of water as a fundamental human right.

Thus it is heartening to see the statement earlier this week from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Human Rights Council: "Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy...With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system. . . . We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies."

This reiteration of the need for global rules to help ensure that people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies is an important reversal of decades of U.S. foreign policy that we need to celebrate.

There will of course be debate over what the "right to live freely and participate fully" involves. Still, Secretary Clinton’s statement gives us a new opportunity. Our next steps should be to ensure that human rights are understood in an inclusive way, so that U.S. policies on agriculture, trade and investments do not undermine, but instead support, peoples' rights, including the right to food, right to water and right to a healthy environment. In other words, to live freely and participate fully in their societies.