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Statement by Mr. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation at the 45th Session of the Human Rights Council

15 September 2020

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The year 2020 marks the tenth year since the General Assembly (GA res 64/292) and the Human Rights Council (HRC res 15/9) recognized safe drinking water and sanitation as human rights and also signals the fact that there are 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The year 2020 furthermore marks a juncture that points to the continued need to advocate for water and sanitation as human rights but, at the same time, to move beyond advocacy and to highlight the challenges in their implementation. It is necessary to move towards concrete steps to realize the human rights to water and sanitation and the specifics of how to implement those rights require further clarification and understanding.

To provide guidelines for such clarification, I have the pleasure to present today a set of reports to clarify the progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation.

  1. The report on progressive realization (A/HRC/45/10) is my last thematic report to the Human Rights Council in which I provide a practical guideline for States to apply when implementing the obligation of progressive realization.
  2. My three follow-up reports on my country visits, to Mexico (A/HRC/45/10/Add.1), India (A/HRC/45/10/Add.2), and Mongolia (A/HRC/45/10/Add.3).
  3. The report on progress (A/HRC/45/11), highlighting examples of progress made worldwide during the last ten years.

1. Progressive realization of the human rights to water and sanitation (A/HRC/45/10)

States have a legal obligation to progressively realize the human rights to water and sanitation, using the maximum of their available resources. This statement looks somewhat dry and does not speak to the water sector. Most of the providers and practitioners will have the feeling that this is just a “legal language” that makes little sense to those in the ground.

However, I am convinced that, when we dissect the concepts behind this statement we have a powerful framework for making decisions about how to implement and extend services to those who most need them.

Thus, the effort of the report is to clarify how to translate the obligation of progressive realization into the language of the water and sanitation sector. In this context, I unpack the constituent parts of the concept, clarify each one and then provide an integrated analysis of it, illustrating ways to monitor its implementation.

Progressive realization:How to move towards the full realization of the rights to water and sanitation, what steps should States take?

The specific steps taken might depend on the context. What is clear in all contexts are two possible strategies:

  1. progressively improving the level of service towards fully meeting the normative content of the human rights to water and sanitation and human rights principles (vertical realization); and
  2. progressively moving towards equal enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation by targeting the unserved and underserved (horizontal realization).

The need for States to move beyond the minimum provision of water and sanitation and to progressively realize the related rights should not be seen as merely moving up the water, sanitation and hygiene ladder, as defined by the monitoring of the SDGs. This is particularly relevant if climbing the ladder is only for part of the population.

Rather, progressive realization points towards the need for States to take stock of the current situation of compliance with the human rights to water and sanitation and identify how best to achieve the adequate level of services for all, without discrimination.

Maximum of available resources

The concept operates as a qualifier of how States are fulfilling the obligation to progressively realize economic, social and cultural rights. It qualifies 2 aspects of the obligation: why a State has failed to meet that obligation and how States should progressively realize them?

A few points on this:

  1. “resources” refer to both financial and non-financial resources including  natural, human, technological, institutional and informational resources.
  2. States should maximize their financial resources by making efforts to create more resources to ensure the enjoyment of human rights to water and sanitation.
  3. Beyond maximizing the amount of the budget allocated, at the planning stage, is the subsequent step of spending and using those resources, which relates to an efficient use and corruption control.

2. Follow-up country visit reports

Mr. President,

A specific example of dynamic monitoring can be found in my project of follow-up, which assesses the implementation of the recommendations I made in official country visits. During a total of 9 official country visits, I assessed the human rights situation of the country at the time of the visit and afterwards. I followed up the status of each recommendation in seven States: Botswana, El Salvador, Portugal, and Tajikistan (that I presented last year to the HRC) and Mexico, India and Mongolia (submitted to the current session). In the follow up exercise, I classified the recommendations in six categories: (1) good progress; (2) progress ongoing; (3) limited progress; (4) progress not started; (5) unable to assess due to lack of information; (6) retrogression.

3. Progress towards the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation (2010–2020) (A/HRC/45/11)

Last year, in view of the 10th anniversary of the human rights to water and sanitation, this Council requested me to carry out awareness-raising activities, including through social media and with the use of accessible materials, and to compile good practices of the progressive realization of the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Pursuant to that request, I organized a year-long campaign throughout 2020, with each month focusing on different themes. I distributed friendly versions of my thematic reports and the findings of the reports in the form of shareable media, blog posts, quizzes, videos, children’s stories and online challenges, among other forms.

For the second part of that request, I present the report which illustrates selected developments and progress made in realizing the human rights to water and sanitation since 2010 in the light of the observations made in my previous thematic reports. The progress is analysed through a three-dimensional framework: human rights as a driver, human rights as a policy tool and human rights as a people-centric approach. The examples of progress provided in the present report are from the submissions received or sources supplementary to the submissions. The selection of cases introduced are not an endorsement but rather an illustration of possible ways of progressively realizing the human rights to water and sanitation.

Final remarks

This is my last presentation to the Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation. During the six years of my mandate, from 2014 to 2020, I have prioritized translating existing legal principles and human rights norms into public policies and implementation mechanisms. I believe that this approach have the potential to contribute to the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation according to the vision I identified at the outset of my mandate, and presented to this Council in 2015 (A/HRC/39/30, Add.1).

The commitments related to water, sanitation and hygiene under the 2030 Agenda are a driver for leaving no one behind, but it will not suffice if States leave the human rights dimensions of the Agenda to the side. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world that leaving behind the people most in need of water and sanitation services can lead to a humanitarian tragedy. In order to build just and humane societies, the human rights to water and sanitation need to be placed as a priority in all contexts over the next 10 years.