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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 71st session of the General Assembly

New York, 25 October 2016

Mme. Chairperson,
Excellencies, distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here speaking to you for a second time to present another thematic report. I focused on development cooperation in the realisation of the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, a topic which possesses great relevance for several reasons:

  • It represents a significant share of total funding for water and sanitation services in developing countries, which is expected to increase in accordance with the commitments outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • Development cooperation often establishes a benchmark for conduct in the water and sanitation sector, not only for funders but also for governmental agencies of partner countries.
  • Development cooperation can have negative impacts on the human rights to water and sanitation. Conversely, if guided by a human rights approach, States and other funders can guarantee that their development cooperation activities in the sector contribute to the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

The current report provides an exploratory and preliminary analysis of this issue, addressing mainly bilateral and multilateral funders. I intend to continue research on the subject and hold a series of dialogues with key actors in a subsequent report that will be submitted in 2017.

The current report consists of 5 parts, besides its introductory chapter:

  • the human rights obligations related to development cooperation in the water and sanitation sector;
  • how development cooperation has been evolving in this particular sector;
  • the current documented policies of bilateral and multilateral funders in this field, examined through the lens of the human rights framework;
  • key stakes in development cooperation for water and sanitation based on the human rights framework;
  • and preliminary conclusions and recommendations.

I will now review some key messages and recommendations from the report. Based on this, I hope that States and multilateral agencies will be able to consider some of these preliminary findings and perform relevant assessments of their procedures, be them as funder entities or as partner countries.

States and multilateral organizations have obligations to realise the human rights to water and sanitation through development cooperation. These obligations are mainly derived from article 2.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among other international legal instruments. These obligations apply to States within their national territory and can also extend extraterritorially, for example when they cooperate with a partner State.

It is common for development cooperation to pass through non-governmental organizations (in some years almost half of all development cooperation to the sector has). Even when cooperation is carried out in such a way, States continue to possess an obligation to ensure that instruments of delegation are in line with human rights standards and contribute to the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

Regarding multilateral organizations, 164 States are parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and many more are parties to several other relevant international human rights instruments. International financial institutions, regional banks and regional development organizations, which consist of these States Parties, should respect, protect and facilitate the human rights to water and sanitation through their activities. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General Comment 15, explains that United Nations agencies and other international organizations should cooperate effectively with States parties to implement the right to water at the national level and that the international financial institutions should take into account the right to water in their policies and development projects.

Moving on to some key findings and stakes

Based on public documents that present policies of bilateral and multilateral funders, as well as responses to a questionnaire I sent to several stakeholders, I identified that a human rights-based approach in the formulation of development cooperation projects and programmes appears to be more of an exception than a rule. Several States indicate an adherence, sometimes implicitly, to some of the human rights principles in their development cooperation policy framework. Similarly, only some policies of major multilateral funders in the sector appear to have incorporated the human rights to water and sanitation. Some funders, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and UNICEF, have issued specific policy documents in which the human rights to water and sanitation have been recognized. Other major multilateral funders, such as the World Bank, have abstained from including human rights-related criteria into their policy frameworks.

Establishing a human rights-based approach in the initial stages of a given project is essential to ensuring that the human rights framework will be embedded in the project from its conception and throughout its implementation. A framework with solid grounding in human rights, backed by the commitment of the staff and boards of funders, would provide safeguards against risks, ensuring that loans and grants for water and sanitation projects do not produce negative outcomes for some individuals or groups, but rather increase the realization of the rights of the most disadvantaged.

Moreover, lack of consideration for country ownership in the process of development cooperation is a frequently raised issue. Respecting country ownership should lead to not imposing particular technological solutions and policies, but instead empowering partner stakeholders in development cooperation projects and programmes, endorsing decisions taken. This will contribute to the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation in the long-term.

In connection with this, conditionalities in loan and grant concessions are often leveraged in such a way as to deny the sovereignty and ownership of the beneficiary country. Common conditionalities in the water and sanitation sector may impose institutional reforms, which are often accompanied by privatization processes and the implementation of full-cost recovery policies based on tariff collection. Such conditionalities, when unaccompanied by appropriate safeguards, can raise serious human rights concerns, including lack of affordability and exclusion of the most disadvantaged. To protect against such concerns, the Government ownership and civil society participation in partner countries are needed in conceptualizing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating development policies, programmes and processes.

Furthermore, development cooperation funding is estimated to be insufficient to achieve the water, sanitation and hygiene targets of SDGs. However, while more funding is truly required, it is also important that development cooperation take into consideration the comprehensive nature of water and sanitation services. For outcomes to be effective and sustainable, States need strong legal, regulatory and policy frameworks for the water and sanitation sector that are in line with the human rights to water and sanitation. Inadequate policies, planning and management of services can seriously impair the effectiveness of development cooperation funding, preventing it from reaching those most in need and from being sustainable. Thus, partner countries must create an enabling environment for development cooperation, observing their human rights obligations. Funders, in turn, must create proper arrangements to ensure that funding effectively generates benefit for the poor and realizes the human rights to water and sanitation.

Finally, although development cooperation flows are on the rise in the water and sanitation sector, disparities exist in funding patterns. Water generally receives more funds than sanitation. Large systems (for water supply or sanitation) regularly receive about twice as much as small systems, which suggests that urban areas are being favoured to the detriment of less urbanized, or rural, areas. Moreover, education and capacity-building are all but neglected, despite them being fundamental aspects for ensuring sustainable water and sanitation services.

To conclude, I would like to recommend that States and multilateral funders:

  1. Openly discuss and identify obstacles to incorporating the human rights framework in all development policies, programmes and projects and identify good practices in overcoming such obstacles;
  2. Develop measures and safeguards with the specific aim of ensuring human rights compliance throughout the project selection process;
  3. Promote active, free and meaningful participation by relevant stakeholders in decision-making through the use of appropriate instruments;
  4. Prioritize funding that actually benefits the poorest and most disadvantaged and seek to end inequalities in access to services.

I am looking forward to continuing our dialogue throughout this coming year and providing further tools to ensure that development cooperation will contribute to the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation.

Thank you for your attention.