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Statement by Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation: responses to Human Right Council questions

12 September 2012

I would like to thank all delegations and other stakeholders who participated in the interactive dialogue that followed the presentation of my reports before the 21st session of the Human Rights Council. In the course of this discussion, many interesting points were raised. I regret that there was not sufficient time to respond to these questions. As indicated in my concluding remarks, I present herewith a succinct note in response to questions and observations raised.

Firstly, I would like to welcome the statement made by the European Union for the first time recognizing the human right to water and sanitation as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. I also welcome the statement by the United Kingdom specifically recognising the human right to sanitation. These are clear signs of the global consensus around the human right to water and sanitation, which I very much welcome.

One common theme I identified during the interactive dialogue is the indivisibility and inter-relatedness of all human rights and the consequent need to address stigma comprehensively. While the analysis in my report is focused on the impact of stigma on access to water and sanitation, in my opinion, many of the findings are applicable to the exercise of other human rights. Unfortunately, in many instances, stigmatized persons experience exclusion not only in relation to the enjoyment of the rights to water and sanitation, but also in relation to the rights to education, health, housing, among other rights.

Several States asked about ideas to address stigma more broadly in the realm of the United Nations human rights system. Let me point out that other Special Procedures mandate holders have addressed stigma in the context of their work, and I have drawn on their analyses in the preparation of my report. I also encourage my other colleagues to explore stigma as it relates to the respective human rights in the context of their mandates. Given the interrelatedness and the relevance of stigma giving rise to a broad range of human rights violations, my view is that joint action by Special Procedures is essential. To enable such joint activities, I warmly support the idea of a Joint Statement by Special Procedures on the issue of stigma and human rights. Furthermore, I would also suggest that questions raised during the Universal Periodic Review could address stigma as relevant to specific country contexts. Similarly, the treaty bodies, such as Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against women, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (to name a few), could systematically raise stigma in their dialogue with State parties and also in their concluding observations. They could also consider devoting a General Comment to stigma, possibly a joint General Comment by several treaty bodies or a joint statement. More broadly, I would like to encourage the Human Rights Council to devote a panel debate to the issue of stigma to give it more visibility and address it in a comprehensive way.

Several States linked the dialogue in the Human Rights Council on stigma to the discussions on the post-2015 development agenda. I am very pleased to see these links being made. I believe that identifying and addressing stigma will help all of us to understand root causes of discrimination, as well as how to combat discrimination. That is, in my view, critical for the post-2015 discussions because we all need to pay attention to who is left behind from development achieved in the framework of the Millennium Development Goals. It is true that, based on the current definitions of access to improved water and sanitation, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme has announced that the MDG water target has been met in 2010. The success of meeting the water target, however, masks huge disparities. More precisely, it does not tell us whether the most un-served or underserved have gained access to services – the way the MDG targets are framed incentivizes aggregate progress instead of targeting the most disadvantaged. Therefore, in many instances, the most marginalized and disadvantaged have not benefitted from advancements made under the MDG framework, and in many instances this lack of progress can be attributed to their stigmatized status. Moreover, other shortcomings exist in the definition of the target and the respective indicators, putting a question mark on to what the success of meeting the target implies, in particular in regard to water quality. Due to the proxy used, having met the target does not tell us whether people actually have access to safe water that does not pose a threat to human health. The future framework must incorporate the dimensions of accessibility, safety and affordability of water and sanitation. It must also address safe hygiene practices, including, in particular, menstrual hygiene management.

To realize universal access to water and sanitation, we need to prioritize the most marginalized, stigmatized and discriminated against. I will contribute to bringing the principle of non-discrimination and equality into the political discussions in the lead up to 2015. In this context I obviously am looking forward to joining forces with OHCHR, interested Special Procedures and others human rights actors. I think it is an issue of paramount importance to address inequalities in any future framework that will be developed post 2015, which is why I decided to focus my upcoming report to the General Assembly on integrating non-discrimination and equality into the post-2015 development agenda for water, sanitation and hygiene. Future goals and targets for water, sanitation and hygiene must aim at universal access and they must aim at eliminating inequalities. I think there is a need to redefine progress. We cannot speak of progress in development when significant parts of the population are left behind – being discriminated against, marginalized and excluded.

I am also closely working with the WHO and UNICEF on developing future goals, targets and indicators for water, sanitation and hygiene for the post-2015 global monitoring under their Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. However, there are certain shortcomings in the definition of the target and the respective indicators, putting a question mark on to what the success of meeting the target implies, in particular in regard to water quality. Due to the proxy used, having met the target does not tell us whether people actually have access to safe water that does not pose a threat to human health. The future framework must incorporate the dimensions of accessibility, safety and affordability of water and sanitation. It must also address safe hygiene practices, including, in particular, menstrual hygiene management.

In response to questions on the notion of stigma and on how it is reflected in the international human rights framework, allow me to underline that marginalization, exclusion and discrimination occur for different reasons – stigma is one of them. I am not suggesting that stigma explains all types of discrimination and I certainly do not intend to replace firmly established human rights concept i.e. discrimination by the notion of stigma. However, in my view it is essential to understand the process of stigmatization, its drivers and manifestations, in order to design and implement appropriate policies and responses to human rights violations that emanate from and are justified by stigma.

Stigma is often an antecedent to and a rationale for discrimination and marginalization. It provides a “justification”, so that discrimination is seen as natural, necessary and desirable. While it is crucial to link stigma to the human rights framework and the principle of non-discrimination in particular, discrimination alone does not fully explain the reasons why entire groups of population persistently lack access to sanitation and water. In cases of stigmatization, people are not “just” experiencing exclusion and marginalization. Their situation is perceived as legitimate and justified by society and sometimes even by the authorities. Identifying human rights violations as rooted in stigma demands an exploration of the origins of discrimination and other human rights violations. In terms of policy design, this requires a stronger focus on combatting stigma, including stereotypes and prejudices, on raising awareness and changing societal and cultural attitudes and norms.

During the work I carried out on compiling good practices, I have learned about a number of practices that highlight the need to address stigma. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, India, the Department for Water Affairs is committed to addressing discriminatory practices due to caste, using access to water and sanitation as the entry point for discussing discrimination in a project called Democratization of Water Management. The programme implementers found that it was frequently not just policies and programmes that perpetuated discriminatory practices, but also the fact that local communities needed awareness-raising programmes to recognize that their own attitudes were discriminatory. One such example is that non-scheduled castes are sometimes not permitted to use the same water source as other castes. To address this, the programme introduced the concept of “citizenship” that emphasized the full inclusion of all in decision-making processes, challenging both engineers and civil society alike. As a result, facilities have been rehabilitated, rather than new ones being constructed. Furthermore, the accurate targeting of those populations that are in most need has improved dramatically. Another example is the work of the NGO Forum for Urban Water and Sanitation in Nepal. It attempts to tackle cultural taboos relating to water, sanitation and hygiene. Together with WaterAid Nepal, the NGO Forum commissioned ten artists to create work that raises awareness of menstruation taboos. This exhibition highlights the harsh reality of the stigma attached to menstruation in the Nepali cultural tradition.

These are but two examples illustrating possible measures needed to address stigma. As outlined in more detail in my report, measures need to reach far beyond technical solutions. In fact, water and sanitation interventions to ensure accessibility can be an entry point for broader societal change, including the realization of the human rights to education, health and work. Other crucial elements to address stigma include raising awareness and ensuring visibility, challenging power dynamics and stereotypes, meaningful participation, ensuring access to information, empowerment and accountability. One of the recommendations in my report is that States must undertake a comprehensive study on stigma, to understand who is affected, its reasons, and manifestations. They must adopt targeted measures and affirmative action to address groups that experience stigmatization to ensure the redistribution of power and resources. All States, whether big or small, whether developed or developing, need to address stigma in a comprehensive way that reaches beyond the water and sanitation sectors starting with legislative and policy frameworks and national planning processes.

This being said, addressing stigma is, of course, not the only precondition for realizing the human rights to water and sanitation. As a response to questions raised on the importance of planning and of financial resources for the sector, in the course of my mandate, I have been addressing a range of other important aspects including national planning processes (A/HRC/18/33) and financing (A/66/255).

In terms of next steps and activities under my mandate for the next two years, I envisage an even stronger focus on implementation. I plan to develop practical guidance (in the form of a “Handbook” or a similar instrument) on implementing the human rights to water and sanitation” which will provide detailed guidance, as well as examples of good practices, on what is expected from States and other stakeholders regarding the implementation of these rights. This handbook is meant to provide guidance to assist and support States and other stakeholders in their work to realize the rights to water and sanitation and to draw together the different threads of work under my mandate. The idea to develop this handbook was advanced in response to repeated requests I have received by States, as well as other stakeholders (International Water Association, regulators, NGOs, donors, etc.) requesting assistance in the implementation of the human rights to water and sanitation, particularly since the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council explicitly recognised the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation in 2010. This explicit recognition has created an enormous momentum in the sector, and as Special Rapporteur, I am in a unique position to provide such guidance. Yet, in order to be able to provide such guidance and reach out to a range of different stakeholders in a way that is tailored to the needs of those working on implementing the human rights to water and sanitation, I still need to secure additional funding.

In terms of my next annual reports to this Council as well as the General Assembly, I intend to devote them to a) progressive realization and the right to water and sanitation in the context of economic crisis; and b) the human rights to water and sanitation in situations of disaster, emergencies, conflict, post-disaster and post-conflict. On the second topic, I agree with the stakeholders who raised this issue during the Interactive Dialogue and on other prior occasions highlighting the need to base responses to such situations on human rights. I am looking forward to the continuing engagement on these and other issues with a broad range of stakeholders and intend to send out a more detailed questionnaire soliciting information on these issues in due course.

On the question of terminology, I am of the opinion that water and sanitation should be treated as two distinct human rights, both included within the right to an adequate standard of living and with equal status. There are pragmatic reasons for my approach and I have already mentioned them in my first annual report to this Council, which was devoted to Sanitation (A/HRC/12/24). All too often, when water and sanitation are mentioned together, the importance of sanitation is downgraded due to the political preference given to water. Naming both water and sanitation as separate human rights provides an opportunity for governments, civil society and other stakeholders to pay particular attention to defining specific standards for the right to sanitation and subsequently for the realization of this right. Further separating the right to sanitation from the right to water recognizes that not all sanitation options rely on water-borne systems. I am fully aware that General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions refer it to the human right to water and sanitation one right. I take this opportunity to encourage Member States to start looking at water and sanitation separately as two human rights.

Finally, during the Interactive Dialogue, several States highlighted their agreement to invite me to undertake a country visit to their respective countries. I appreciate these invitations which are a demonstration of their commitment to the human rights mechanisms. I will be in contact with these countries individually to explore the potential for visits.

Once again, I would like to extend my appreciation to all Governments, United Nations agencies and entities, civil society organizations and others who have supported my mandate through this important dialogue, as well as throughout the year.

I look forward to continuing the work in cooperation with all the stakeholders, and, I hope to make a contribution to the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation, in particular for the most marginalized and disadvantaged in society.