A friend from my Peace Corps days posted on Facebook the UN press release that the General Assembly has adopted a resolution “Recognizing Access to Clean Water, Sanitation as Human Right, By Recorded Vote of 122 in Favour, None Against, 41 Abstentions.”
This isn’t exactly getting major press coverage. And, indeed, just because the UN General Assembly calls something a human right doesn’t automatically make it so, though it can be important in the development of such a norm. Some, however, have argued that it already is a human right. Since we need water to live, and since a right to life is enshrined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, then perhaps there is already consensus on this? (See the post by Jennifer Vettel at Columbia’s Earth Institute). But 41 nations did choose to abstain, including (please note with appropriate shock) famed human rights-leading Canada. Of course, the US also abstained. As did, apparently, some developing countries who were concerned about incurring greater legal obligations for providing water to their citizens then they could possibly fulfill (see the Huffington Post on this).
So what is the significance of this General Assembly vote? At this point, it seems to me unclear that much will change if change requires politically costly choices. As Iman Kurdi suggests in his post on ArabNews.com, it is unlikely that Israel or Turkey will change or reverse their dam-building, which has infuriated neighbors in the past. So I would expect others interested in building dams (Ethiopia, for instance) are probably proceeding without giving such human rights concerns a second thought. Possibly the biggest impact will be to act as a fundraiser for the UN’s various water and sanitation-related initiatives. As the International Law Observer reports, there is a clear non-binding appeal to states and international organizations to commit resources.
While the impact of the resolution is therefore limited. It does help bring needed publicity and international attention to an important problem. One of my students here at Wesleyan University, Oluwayimika Taiwo-Peters, is tackling this head-on in her home-country of Nigeria this summer. She is visiting local schools as part of a health education program she created, and installing a rainwater catchment system at a local school. Her activities remind me of my old Peace Corps days as a water and sanitation volunteer in Northern Ghana! But the bottom-line is that for many people in Africa — and close to a billion people worldwide — reliable access to safe water and sanitation is an important obstacle to development and happiness. So I will hold out the hope that this norm continues to grow.
And since we are talking about norms, this isn’t a bad place to mention Schrad’s recent book on The Political Power of Bad Ideas, which The Duck of Minerva reviews. The excellent point of the book is to explore how not just good ideas (we need clean water) but also bad ideas (prohibition counts as one of these, in his view) can be spread via advocacy networks. I haven’t read this yet, but Charli Carpenter’s post makes me want to!