Celebrating Human Rights Day: Talking about people’s access to water and sanitation


The 10th of December is observed every year to remember the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
To mark the occasion this December WaterLex organised an event to talk about people’s access to water and sanitation (HRWS).

While the human rights to water and sanitation were not explicitly enshrined in the Universal Declaration, this historic document contains a number of other rights that are closely linked to the HRWS and that cannot be exercised without the realization of the HRWS. The HRWS have been recognized by the international community in various instruments, from UNGA and Human Right Council Resolutions, to implicit and explicit mentions in treaties. Unfortunately, billions of people still do not have access to water and sanitation that are safe, available, accessible, acceptable and affordable. In addition, access to water and sanitation may be challenging for certain groups of people and in certain settings.

Against this backdrop, the event discussed the situation of different people in terms of their access to water and sanitation and the challenges they may face in practice. There was also room for reflection on the progress experienced, in particular since the recognition of the HRWS by the UN General Assembly in 2010.

Prof. Eibe Riedel moderated this interactive event, introducing four experts in different aspects of human rights, and how the human rights to water and sanitation are important for different people in different situations. Prof. Riedel himself is an expert on the HRWS, responsible for drafting CESCR General Comment No. 15 on the Right to water in 2002.

Mara Tignino, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Coordinator of the Platform for International Water Law at the Geneva Water Hub, spoke about Transboundary Water Cooperation, Public Participation and the Human Right to Water.
Her presentation addressed the pillars of public participation: access to information, consultation of local communities in decision-making processes and access to judicial and quasi-judicial procedures and cited also how the right to water is a tool for peace.

Murray Burt, Senior WASH Officer at UNHCR, highlighted how the situation of refugees is closely linked to the right to water and sanitaton. Just back from a trip to Bangladesh working with the Rohingya refugees, he talked about the challenge of assuring rights to water and sanitation in refugee situations, with more than 65 million people displaced by war and prosecution worldwide. Assuring access to water and sanitation is not only related to refugee camps, as 75% of refugees are hosted in cities and villages. Thinking of refugees in the context of the SDGs and particularly the right to water, UNHCR is working with governments and organizations to raise the profile of refugees in the discussion of sustainable development.

Lucinda O’Hanlon, Adviser on Women’s Rights at OHCHR addressed the intersection of gender equality and the HRWS and how there is growing attention on the rights of women and girls to water and sanitation.
She spoke about how gender inequality is manifested in HRWS, and how upholding the rights to water and sanitation is one pathway to gender equality.

Finally, Carlos Carrión-Crespo, Public Service sector specialist at ILO, highlighted how work and water and sanitation are closely related. The theme for World Water Day and World Toilet Day 2016 was Jobs and Water. Access to safe and reliable water supply and sanitation services at home, school and the workplace is critical to maintaining a healthy, educated and productive workforce. Opportunities for employment growth and decent jobs are contingent upon the sustainable management of water resources and the provision of water-related services. Sustainable water policies help to bridge knowledge and capacity gaps while reducing gender inequalities

On the same occasion, WaterLex launched its new handbook “The Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: An annotated selection of international and regional law and mechanisms”, published in English and Spanish. The handbook compiles and annotates extracts from international law and mechanisms, thereby demonstrating how the various frameworks contribute to the realisation of those rights.

This publication was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC).

Mr. Ambassador Director General Bob L. J. Chen from the Taipei Cultural and Economic Delegation, Geneva Office, highlighted the importance of the new handbook.