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Right to sanitation, a distinct human right – Over 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation

Right to sanitation

18 December 2015

GENEVA (18 December 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, Léo Heller, and the Chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Waleed Sadi, today welcomed the explicit recognition of the ‘human right to sanitation’ as a distinct right, together with the ‘human right to safe drinking water’ by the UN General Assembly.

Over 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation - the sanitation target under Goal 7 has been missed by one of the widest margins of all the 18 targets under the Millennium Development Goals. One billion people practise open defecation, nine out of ten in rural areas across the world. 

“The right to sanitation is an essential component of the right to an adequate standard of living, inextricably linked to the highest attainable standard of health, and integrally related to the human right to water,” Mr. Sadi said. “The explicit recognition of the human right to sanitation and the human right to water reaffirms that sanitation has distinct features which warrant its own separate recognition and treatment from water in some respects.”

The experts explained that while sanitation does not necessarily have to be water-borne, Governments tend to focus on this type, rather than on-site sanitation such as pit latrines and septic tanks which are still widely used. As a result, individual households which rely on on-site sanitation often have to operate the entire system themselves, including collection and disposal, without government support. “The right to sanitation also requires privacy and dignity,” the experts stressed.

“Sanitation and water issues need to be approached comprehensively at many levels,” Mr. Heller said. “I strongly believe that the clear definitions of the human right to sanitation and the human right to water provided in the resolution will help focus international attention on sanitation issues in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

In the UN General Assembly resolution, adopted by consensus on 17 December, Member States recognized that ‘the human right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.’

“This is a significant step taken by all United Nations Member States to address the right to sanitation on an equal footing with the right to water,” Special Rapporteur Heller said.

“The Committee welcomes the full recognition of the right to sanitation by States, and highlights the importance of complying with principles related to non-discrimination, gender equality, participation and accountability in this regard,” Mr. Sadi stated.

“We urge all Member States, in both their national budgeting and international development cooperation, to target the allocation of resources to sanitation in particular to the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups and individuals, as those living in urban informal settlements and in rural areas,” the experts said.


Léo Heller is the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council in November 2014. Mr. Heller is currently a researcher in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil. Learn more, log on to:

Waleed Sadi is Chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee is composed of 18 international independent experts who monitor the implementation of the ICESCR by States Parties.  Learn more, log on to:

For more information and press enquiries, please contact Ms. Maja Andrijasevic-Boko (+41 22 917 9216 / [email protected]) and Ms. Ahreum Leei (+41 22 917 9391 / mailto:[email protected]). 

For media enquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])  

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