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Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms Catarina de Albuquerque at the Human Rights Council, 10th session




Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to be here, presenting my first report to the Human Rights Council as Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to safe drinking water and sanitation. My report is a preliminary one since I only took up my mandate on 1 November 2008. Since I took up my new functions, I have already had numerous consultations and meetings, organised by different stakeholders who devote themselves to the subject matters of my mandate. I must confess that I have been impressed and encouraged by the incredible amount of activity concerning the issues of water and sanitation. The dedication and motivation of Governments, NGOs, international organisations, national human rights institutions and also, very impressively, by individuals towards these issues is truly inspiring!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those with whom I have started to work with in the last months, and especially those who have helped and assisted me most. I would like to underline the deep commitment and support to my mandate particularly by the main co-sponsors of resolution 7/22, as well as to the Secretariat of the OHCHR – the Special Procedures Division - which has been performing an outstanding, professional, enthusiastic and very dedicated work in supporting the mandate.

The report I have submitted to you traces events behind the creation of my mandate, including an examination of General Comment 15 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the study by the High Commissioner on the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments; developments at the regional and national levels, and advancements here at the Human Rights Council. This is, in my view, important to explain and justify my approach to the mandate.

As you know, resolution 7/22 outlines three main tasks for me to carry out as Independent Expert. Firstly, I am expected to identify, promote and exchange views on best practices related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and, in that regard, to prepare a compendium of best practices related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Secondly, I have been asked to undertake a study on the further clarification of the content of human rights obligations, including non-discrimination obligations, in relation to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. And thirdly, I am requested to make recommendations that could help the realization of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular of Goal 7.

In reflecting on the task of compiling best practices, I have tried to instead use the terminology “good practice”, since it is difficult to conclude that one practice or another is the best – this would require an assessment of all existing practices in order to be able to elect the best one. With this in mind, and considering the difficulty of judging the value of practices, I have decided to firstly develop criteria for identifying good practices and I intend to have an expert consultation on this topic in 2009. Taking the time to elaborate criteria for identifying good practices will contribute to clarifying the standards that I will use in order to determine the value of practices from a human rights perspective. This first step will hopefully enable me to have a solid basis to elect examples of good practices by different actors, in order to prepare the compendium requested by this Council.

As you know, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted a report to this Council at its 6th session, in which she said, “that it is now time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, defined as the right to equal and non-discriminatory access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses – drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene – to sustain life and health.” That report also outlines several issues related to water and sanitation which require further research and clarification. One such issue was the need for clarification of the normative content of human rights obligations in relation to access to sanitation. In this regard, in my report I indicate my intention to focus on sanitation in the first year of my mandate.

You might rightly ask, why sanitation?

According to UN agencies, nearly 40% of the world’s population, that is 2,5 billion people, have no access to improved sanitation. Globally, it is estimated that 1,6 million people die each year from water and sanitation related causes – the vast majority of those affected being children under five. Tragically, as of 2006, 23% of the world’s population still had no access to any sanitation and practiced open defecation. The benefits for human life and human development of ensuring access to sanitation have been well documented. Nevertheless, sanitation remains the most neglected and the most off-track of the Millennium Development Goal targets. According to estimates from 2008, meeting the MDG target for sanitation requires ensuring access to improved sanitation for 1,4 billion by 2015, or an average 173 million people per year. Although there has been increased access to improved sanitation, WHO and UNICEF estimate that if the current trends continue, the total number of people without access to improved sanitation will only have decreased slightly by 2015 – to 2,4 billion people. Despite the alarming numbers, the international community has not done enough to address the sanitation crisis. Sanitation has, in fact, historically been viewed as a lower priority than water supply and has attracted less investment in international development assistance. This fatal under-prioritization results in the loss of millions of lives each year.

Part of the reason for the neglect of sanitation is the taboo surrounding the issue. This topic is unpopular and unmentionable, it makes people feel uncomfortable and, indeed, it is challenging to discuss such a private matter in public. But as was eloquently put by the Chairman of the United Nations Secretary General Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, it is time to break the taboo and to call a spade a spade or a toilet a toilet and start doing something about this unacceptable killer. I hope that starting with a focus on sanitation will contribute to putting this vital matter on the international human rights agenda and to reverse this tragic trend. We need to bring this discussion to the forefront and ensure it receives the attention it deserves. In my opinion, this is also a human rights discussion and the Human Rights Council has a leading role to play.

In 2002 the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted – as I already mentioned – General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. While this interpretation of the Covenant by the Committee offers a valuable framework for understanding the right to water, relatively less attention was paid to sanitation. General Comment No. 15 recognizes that “ensuring that everyone has access to adequate sanitation is not only fundamental for human dignity and privacy, but is one of the principal mechanisms for protecting the quality of drinking water supplies and resources.”

However the General Comments falls short of addressing sanitation in an autonomous and comprehensive way. I have now, with the mandate that the Council gave me, the chance to do it.

As a matter of fact, sanitation can be related to human rights in, at least, three different ways:

1. Lack of access to sanitation has dire consequences for a series of human rights, especially the right to health, the right to education, and the right to adequate housing. Concerning the right to health, improved sanitation which ensures separation of waste from human contact is crucial. Open defecation jeopardizes the health of the whole community, resulting in increased diarrhoeal diseases, including cholera; as well as worm infestations and hepatitis. Regarding the right to education, it is estimated that lack of access to water and sanitation results in 443 million lost school days because of water-related illnesses. In addition, girls can be prevented form attending school because of a lack of toilets (or of girls-only toilets). Access to sanitation is also considered a fundamental element of the right to adequate housing, as noted in General Comment No. 4 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and as detailed in the reports of the Special Rapporteur.

2. Examining the issue from a broader level, lack of sanitation is frequently a consequence of larger societal discrimination, inequality and exclusion, fundamentally inconsistent with human rights protection.

3. Thirdly, and crucially, I also believe that lack of access to sanitation constitutes, in itself, a serious human rights concern, as it relates to the inherent dignity of the human being. Sanitation is, in fact, a matter of human rights!

In this regard, from 27 to 29 April, I will be holding an expert consultation to discuss the human rights obligation related to access to sanitation. A portion of the meeting will be open to Governments, international organisations, national human rights institutions and NGOs, where these stakeholders will be able to present inputs and views on the issue. I will present the results of this consultation the next time I report to this Council. I hope to offer a balanced, accurate and also meaningful framework to advance our understanding of the human rights obligations related to sanitation.

Of course the fact that I will pay a special attention to sanitation in 2009 does not mean that I will disregard water – there are inextricable links between the two, and public policies for water and sanitation have to be seen as part of an integrated strategy.

With reference to the Millennium Development Goals, I am planning a mission to New York this summer in order to speak with key actors working in this field. I will report on this when I submit my first substantive report to this Council. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to efforts at realizing the MDGs, and view it as another opportunity to further unify development efforts with a human rights perspective.

Además estuve en contacto con diversos países, incluyendo con las misiones permanentes aquí en Ginebra, para explorar la posibilidad de realizar visitas a países con el objetivo de trabajar conjuntamente con eses gobiernos sobre los temas de mi mandato. Estoy muy satisfecha por el facto de que mis pedidos han sido recibidos de forma muy positiva por diversos países. En este contexto me complace de informarles que, dentro de 2 semanas, estaré viajando hasta Costa Rica para mi primera misión. Esta será igualmente la primera vez que un procedimiento especial hace una visita oficial aquel país. Espero poder relatar sobre la visita en la próxima ocasión que venir al Consejo! Espero poder igualmente realizar una segunda visita todavía en el 2009.

I look forward to engaging with you over the next years as I embark on this mandate. I am already very encouraged by the enthusiasm and interest surrounding human rights, water and sanitation, and I am confident that the positive dialogue will continue.

Thank you for your attention.