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Press Statement, United Nations Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque - Mission to Japan

Tokyo, Japan
United Nations Information Center
28 July 2010, 15:00

At the conclusion of her 9 day official fact-finding mission to Japan, the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation issued the following statement:
“Mizukara Katsudoushite Hokawo Ugokashimuruha Mizu nari.”
(It is the water which proactively moves and influences others.)

(Taken from the Kibune Shrine in Kyoto)

From 20 to 28 July, I conducted an official mission to Japan in order to assess the manner in which the Government is ensuring the enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation. I had meetings with Government Ministries responsible for topics falling within my mandate, including the Ministries of Foreign Affairs; Health, Labour and Welfare; Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; and the Environment. I also met with JICA as well as prefectural and city authorities in Osaka. I visited the Misono Water Purification Plant and the Ochiai Water Reclamation Center in Tokyo. I also held numerous meetings with civil society groups in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and visited homeless communities in Osaka and Tokyo, as well as the Utoro community outside Kyoto. I would like to express my appreciation to the Government for facilitating my visit. I am also grateful to the civil society organizations and individuals who assisted me before and during this mission. Thank you also to all the  individuals who shared personal information with me about their access to water and sanitation.

In my meetings with the Government, Japan’s commitment to human rights was reiterated. I am pleased that the establishment of an independent national human rights institution is a priority for Japan, as restated in its recent report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I encourage all political parties to support these plans without delay, as this institution would have the potential to more fully ensure the enjoyment of human rights in Japan. This institution must be competent to examine and raise awareness about all human rights, whether civil, cultural, economic, political or social. Concerning the overall framework on human rights, I note that Japan does not have an overarching law prohibiting discrimination. Non-discrimination is one of the central tenants of human rights law, and in this regard, I particularly urge the Government to prohibit discrimination in law and in practice with regard to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Furthermore, the courts must systematically ensure that international human rights norms are always used as the standard against which Government actions are assessed. In this context, I would also strongly urge the Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The rights to water and sanitation require that everyone has sufficient access to water and sanitation to meet their personal and domestic needs in a dignified manner, as required by Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Water quality must be safe for human consumption, and sanitation facilities must safely separate human excreta from human or animal contact. Water for personal and domestic uses must be clearly prioritized over any other water uses, such as water for industry or agriculture. Water and sanitation services must be affordable, even for those in the most difficult situations. This does not mean that these should be provided for free, but that special attention should be paid to those who may lack the necessary means to obtain these services. I would welcome explicit recognition by the Japanese Government of these rights.

Japan has made extraordinary progress in relatively little time to ensure nearly universal access to water and sanitation. In the meetings I had with the Government as well as during the visits to water and wastewater treatment plants, the commitment to ensure safe drinking water and protection of the environment from wastewater and other types of contamination was evident. Tap water is potable everywhere in Japan, which is a commendable achievement. I also learned about important efforts to recycle wastewater, as well as re-use of sludge. I was also particularly impressed by the efforts of Japan to ensure emergency preparedness with regard to water and sanitation, especially in the event of earthquakes. These are very important achievements, and Japan must continue these efforts to ensure that everyone has safe access to water and sanitation in all spheres of their lives and at all times.

I note that Japan faces particular challenges with an ageing and decreasing population. After years of expanding access, Japan will now need to find appropriate solutions for decreasing the capacity of water and wastewater works in some areas of the country. Maintaining water and wastewater systems is closely related to the level of consumption, as well as the availability of funds, while the decreasing population implies less consumption and a shrinking tax and user fee base for the maintenance of these facilities. As the authorities seek responses to these challenges, particular emphasis will be needed on encouraging water conservation, designing small-scale systems which use water efficiently, and establishing a tariff system which does not put these basic rights out of reach for the poorest people.  The establishment of a multi stakeholder platform – composed, inter alia, of national ministries, municipalities, civil society, academia and the business sector – to discuss these challenges and identify innovative solutions to address them, would be a welcome initiative.

The rights to water and sanitation must be enjoyed without discrimination on grounds of, inter alia, race, sex, ethnicity, disability, and age. Because of the centrality of the principle of non-discrimination in human rights law, human rights naturally focus on those who are most marginalized, excluded and vulnerable. Thus, I spent much of my time in Japan speaking with and learning about the situation of the most vulnerable groups, including homeless people, foreigners, persons with disabilities, and people deprived of their liberty.

I met with homeless people and representatives of homeless groups, living in parks, in Tokyo and Osaka. To a certain extent, people living in parks have access to water and sanitation through public facilities, which is already a positive sign when compared with other countries. However, public facilities in parks with homeless people are sometimes not maintained by the authorities concerned and I was told that they  were sometimes unresponsive to requests to have such facilities repaired or maintained. I am also concerned about homeless people’s access to personal hygiene, including showers and baths. For women living in parks, the situation is more difficult because of their different privacy needs, as well as special sanitary requirements when they are menstruating. I would welcome if the Government and municipalities would work closely together, along with representatives of the homeless people, to find a holistic solution for these problems in accordance with international human rights standards.

I also visited the Utoro community near Kyoto, where Koreans have been living for several generations. The situation of access to water and sanitation has reportedly improved over the years, but there is room for additional progress. In a country which has achieved so much in the areas of water and sanitation, it is shocking to see that some people still have no access to water from the network. People are also not connected to the sewage network, despite the fact that the surrounding area is largely covered by sewage service. When floods occur, as happened one year ago, the lack of sewage and proper evacuation of greywater result in contamination of the environment, including with human faeces, posing serious health concerns. I am also worried that water and sanitation are extremely expensive for some people living in Utoro, who reportedly do not have a right to receive a pension.

I was pleased to observe that many of the public toilet facilities I visited were accessible for persons with disabilities. However, in my meetings with persons with disabilities and representatives of groups defending their rights, I learned that these people face serious problems in obtaining housing that accommodates their accessibility needs. The lack of anti-discrimination legislation, which I referred to before, is also relevant in this context. Furthermore, I was informed that, in some cases, children with disabilities may only attend school if their mothers agree to make themselves permanently available to take care of the children’s toilet needs while at school. In this regard, I welcome the Ministry of Education’s initiative to implement the Cabinet decision taken in June 2010 concerning the rights of persons with disabilities.

I also learned about the situation of people deprived of their liberty and I am concerned that in some prisons, detainees are only permitted to wash their clothes and their hair within authorised times, which is normally 2 to 3 times per week. Allegedly, transgression of this rule can result in solitary confinement. Furthermore, I was informed about restraint mechanisms (type 2 handcuffs) which are used on prisoners, including when they are in protection cells, which limit their ability to use the toilet or to access drinking water. I was assured by the Ministry of Justice that there are no prohibitions on prisoners' access to water and sanitation. People deprived of their liberty must be able to access water and sanitation, including for hygiene purposes, in dignity in order to maintain their health and cleanliness.

Some of the interlocutors with whom I met raised concerns about private sector participation in water and sanitation service delivery. Human rights are neutral when it comes to the method of service delivery, and thus, either form of service delivery, or a combination thereof, may be appropriate in different contexts. However, whether public or private, the State is obliged to always ensure that all dimensions of the rights to water and sanitation are guaranteed. I hence invite Japan to put in place an effective regulatory framework, which would govern, inter alia, water quality standards, water tariffs and service quality. The participation of the private sector can be a sensitive issue, and in order to ensure continued respect for human rights, the Japanese authorities should undertake human rights impact assessments before a decision to out-source services, as well as during and after such contracts, to fully understand the implications of such a decision.

Japan is the leading donor in the areas of water and sanitation internationally, and its expertise in these topics has benefitted the efforts of developing countries to improve their systems. I welcome that the ODA Charter is underpinned by the concept of human security, which includes protection of human rights. Japan’s commitment to human rights could be better reflected in its official development assistance by undertaking more efforts to reach those who still lack access to water and sanitation, and these considerations could be taken explicitly into account in the context of the upcoming Mid-term review. With the majority of assistance going to loan aid, benefitting middle income countries in Asia, Japan’s development assistance currently largely improves access to water and sanitation for people who already have some degree of access. A shift towards more grants and technical cooperation for the least developed countries, and a focus on basic water and sanitation supply (rather than large networks) would have an enormous impact on ensuring that all people have at least basic access to safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as to achieving the MDGs. I welcome the fact that Japan has already integrated many human rights principles in its Guidelines on Environmental and Social Considerations, but encourage Japan to ensure that human rights guide all aspects of setting priorities, project design and implementation.

I leave Japan impressed not only by the high levels of access to water and sanitation, but also by the innovative technologies utilized to make these safe, hygienic and accessible. While I have concerns about some parts of the population, I am convinced that these issues can be quickly resolved. Japan is a world leader in terms of what it has achieved domestically, as well as its level of international assistance. I urge the Government to place human rights at the center of all its future efforts in these sectors.