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Statement by Mr. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 39th Session of the Human Rights Council

10 September 2018

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I have the pleasure to present today three reports: a thematic report on human rights to water and sanitation of forcibly displaced persons, and reports on my visits to India and Mongolia. I will also describe activities that I have been developed and plans for the near future.

Human rights to water and sanitation of forcibly displaced persons

In the report (A/HRC/39/55) presented before you today, I focussed on the human rights to water and sanitation of forcibly displaced persons, in particular internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in vulnerable situations, while en route, at borders, at reception, and at the destination. In the preparation for this report, I was surprised by the poor access to water and sanitation that millions of forcibly displaced people suffer, despite a wide international attention given to a recent spike in displacements. Some are forgotten in protracted situations and some do not receive what they desperately need because their needs are not taken into account or they are not properly consulted.

I would like to remind you that forcibly displaced persons are rights holders, who are entitled to enjoy access to adequate drinking water and sanitation services, and not mere recipients of aids. Receiving countries cannot justify restrictions on the enjoyment of the essential content of economic, social and cultural rights based on a lack of resources. Developed States, as well as others that are “in a position to assist”, have international obligations and responsibilities to ensure the essential access to water and sanitation.  States have no justification for providing forcibly displaced persons with substandard water and sanitation services as a means to restrict their entry into the territory or as a means to deter people from staying.

I am concerned that humanitarian actors quickly implement “life-saving” assistance without setting a time frame to move towards the progressive realization of the rights of displaced persons or without the due participation of those who are affected. Progressive realization does not simply mean a gradual improvement in and expansion of service levels. It requires the taking of deliberate, concrete and targeted steps to the maximum extent of available resources; this includes international cooperation and continuing funding. Humanitarian assistance also still tends to concentrate on camps, even though most forcibly displaced persons actually live outside camps. In this regard, States, humanitarian and other relevant actors need to take an inclusive approach that seeks to incorporate forcibly displaced persons in national and local development planning and in supporting local water and sanitation services.

Effective remedy and accountability mechanisms are crucial for the protection of human rights and for strengthening people’s resilience including during times of stability. However, in the humanitarian-development nexus, unclear accountability mechanisms for both humanitarian and development actors are contributing to unsustainable or discontinuous interventions. The human rights framework — in particular the principles of sustainability, participation and accountability, as well as cost-efficiency from a human rights perspective — can offer consistency, given that the persons concerned continue to be entitled to the human rights to water and sanitation throughout the humanitarian and development phases.

In addition, strengthening the human rights to water and sanitation during times of stability could help to reduce and mitigate the risks of displacement, since the realization of these rights requires the strengthening of other human rights. The level of the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation can indeed act as a gauge of the implementation of other human rights, and hence reflect people’s degree of resilience.

Mr. President,
Let me now move onto the two country missions.

India (27 October – 10 November 2017)

The most frequently discussed topic during my visit to India was related to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). The main goal of the programme is to end open defecation by October 2019 through the massive installation of millions of toilets across the country and behaviour change efforts, supported by the allocation of an impressive budget. The programme is indeed a unique effort of a country to face its challenges related to sanitation in an extremely short time span and is a large step towards the progressive realization of the Indian population’s human right to sanitation. I warmly commend the Government for the implementation of this relevant initiative. During the visit, I was impressed by the nationwide momentum, from the central Government to the most basic unit of administration and the general public, to eliminate open defecation, to accelerate the efforts to achieve universal sanitation coverage and to focus on sanitation.

I wish to highlight that the Clean India Mission can further benefit from effectively incorporating the human rights framework in order to close the gap between the spirit and formulation of the Programme and the way it has been actually implemented. The current emphasis on ending open defecation by 2019 should not be a mere counting exercise for the purpose of declaring a village, a city or a state ‘open defecation free’. Further, the emphasis on behaviour change – to use toilets as opposed to defecating in the open - should not be at the cost of affecting other rights or to result in abusive conduct.

It is imperative that human rights to water and sanitation be at the core of all programmes and polices of India and more broadly in its water and sanitation sector. A clear and holistic human rights-based framework, if incorporated as a whole and not in a piecemeal manner, will guide India to fulfil its human rights obligations and, at the same time, to adhere to its commitment to “leave no one behind” under the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly 6.1 and 6.2. I wish to stress that inclusion of all groups of the society is the key to providing equal access to water and sanitation without discrimination. India’s population is equivalent to nearly one-fifth of the world population and India’s compliance with human rights will certainly be an important contribution to achieving SDGs at the global level.  

Mongolia (9 – 20 April 2018)

During my visit to Mongolia, I had the chance to see how several aspects of the culture, history, geography and socioeconomic trends impact the situation of access to water and sanitation. In addition to the extreme weather conditions, one element that significantly affects access to water and sanitation is the traditional dwelling, the ger. A ger is a portable roundhouse covered by felt. It is a unique dwelling that reflects the way that the nomadic population of Mongolia lives. The climate of Mongolia exacerbates unequal access to drinking water and sanitation services between those living in apartments and houses in areas with centrally connected pipes and those living in the ger areas without a piped connection.

I stress that the Mongolian Government should address and bridge the gap between the ger and apartment areas in terms of the level of water and sanitation services, continuity of services and water tariffs. In doing so, I recommend the Government to devise short- and long-term measures to provide a gradual improvement in access to water and sanitation in the ger areas, with the aim of ensuring adequate and continuous services.

During the initial phases, I recommend that the Government plan to increase the number of water kiosks and improve the quality of pit latrines. During the subsequent phases, with the expansion of piped networks to the ger areas, the Government should establish a specific programme or subsidy mechanism to support those who are economically vulnerable in improving the facilities in their homes that are needed to access a piped network and to pay fees for connecting to piped networks.

I remain at the disposal of the Government of Mongolia and the Government of India for a continued and constructive engagement regarding the findings and recommendations from my visit.

I would like to take the opportunity to clarify the methodology that I have used for my official visits. Given the nature of the water and sanitation sector – involving a range of issues from socio-economic to technological - the analysis of the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation in any country calls for a highly complex assessment, especially when constant changes in the implementation of national programmes take place.

In view of this, prior to the visit, I circulate a call for input from all relevant stakeholders including the civil society and the international organizations. I also request specific information to the Government in order to have the most recent and updated official statistics and information and a wide overview before I start the visit. I supplement this information with my own research.

During the visits, I often face diverging views about the situation of the water and sanitation services from the national Government, local authorities, civil society organizations, and affected people. Hence, for my assessment, I aim to adopt the most balanced approach possible, applying a human rights lens to the best evidence provided by a variety of sources.

Mr. President,

In addition to those reports and country missions, I have also undertaken various activities as part of my mandate since I last reported to the Human Rights Council in September last year. Among those activities, I would like to highlight my follow-up analysis of country visits, which I have introduced in the Annex of my thematic report (A/HRC/39/55).

For further information on activities that I have carried out in the past year, I would invite everyone to visit the “activities” page of my webpage hosted by OHCHR.

Follow-up analysis of country visits

Since my appointment in November 2014, I have conducted seven official country visits. Together with the former Special Rapporteur’s visits, the mandate has conducted a total of 22 visits.

In order to enhance the impact of the visits, I am conducting a follow-up exercise by analysing all relevant information related to the recommendations of the country visit reports. This way, I will gather elements for providing an assessment on the status of implementation of those recommendations.

In the first half of 2018, I commenced the follow-up analysis of the first five official country visits undertaken since 2015, namely, Botswana, El Salvador, Mexico, Portugal, and Tajikistan. I would like to thank those Governments that have already responded to the questionnaire sent.

I plan to continue the follow-up analysis of the official country visits undertaken. In 2019, I will focus on the follow-up analysis to India and Mongolia and visits undertaken by the former Special Rapporteur.

To learn more about this initiative, I would like to invite those interested to visit the “Follow-up analysis of official country visits” page of my webpage hosted by OHCHR.

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Finally, I wish to provide brief information on the plans for my mandate for the second half of 2018 and 2019. I will be conducting a country visit to Malaysia in November this year and to Lesotho in February 2019. Further, Benin has accepted my visit request in November 2019. I am grateful for the acceptance and the cooperation of the Governments.

My next two thematic reports will be on (1) impacts of mega-projects on the human rights to water and sanitation and (2) the human rights to water and sanitation in spheres of life beyond the household.

Similar to last year, I am organizing two kick-off roundtables tomorrow (11 September 2018, concept note) and the day after (12 September 2018, concept note) on the two themes. I hope that these brainstorming sessions, whereby I reaffirm my engagement with the communities dedicated to water, sanitation and human rights, will provide valuable insights to initiate the preparation of both reports.