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Privatization of water and sanitation services entails human rights risks, says UN expert

NEW YORK (21 October 2020) – Countries must consider human rights when privatising their water and sanitation services, a UN human rights expert said in a report delivered to the UN General Assembly today, calling for comprehensive assessments and guarantees on adequate safeguards. 

Léo Heller, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, challenged the traditional approach that human rights are neutral when it comes to the type of water and sanitation provider. He identified three factors that shape the human rights risks of private provision of water and sanitation: Profit maximization, natural monopoly, and power imbalances. 

First, the imperative of private providers to make as much profit as possible can undermine States’ obligation to provide affordable water and sanitation services to all. 

Second, in a natural monopoly environment of the water and sanitation sector with only one provider, regulatory bodies are more exposed to be captured by providers and the capacity of regulators to protect the human rights to water and sanitation can be weakened. 

Third, in an ideal world, the power dynamic between public authorities and private providers would be equal. In practice, however, the power imbalances in the water and sanitation sector exacerbate the two above mentioned factors and present risks to human rights. 

As to the specific risks to human rights posed by privatization, the UN expert noted that “when for-profit businesses are in the picture, economic motivations may outweigh the motivation to fulfil the standards of the human rights to water and sanitation. In certain cases, stringent human rights requirements may be incentive for private operators not to invest in certain areas. As a result, countries could feel pressured to lower standards or weaken regulation.” 

The UN expert stressed that countries must take into account these possible risks and protect the rights of people by not delegating water and sanitation services when human rights are threatened. When the decision is to privatize services or when 
privatization is already in place, a series of safeguards need to be implemented in order to enable mechanisms to hold private providers accountable. 

Although private actors are not directly bound by international human rights law, national laws, contracts and regulations incorporate international human rights obligations and private operators and utilities are bound by them. 
A simplified version of the report is also available. 


Mr. Léo Heller (Brazil) is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, appointed in November 2014. He is a researcher in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil and was previously Professor of the Department of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil from 1990 to 2014. 

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms Ahreum Lee (ahreumlee@ohchr.org/ +41 22 917 9391) 

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: In Geneva: Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855/rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org). In New York: Jonathan Fowler (+ 1 917 208 6656 / jonathan.fowler@un.org)

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts

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