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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Side Event of the High-level Political Forum 2020Accountability for the Elimination of Inequalities in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) COVID-19 Response

08 July 2020

Opening remarks by Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Accountability at the Global Level for SDG 6 during the COVID-19 Response and Beyond

8 July 2020, 12:00-13:30 EST

Dear colleagues,

I am very pleased to join this important event to examine critical questions on accountability for eliminating inequality in water and sanitation during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

At the outset, I wish to recall that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the formal recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation by the UN General Assembly in 2010, after three decades of extensive discussions among stakeholders.  I am very grateful to the Sanitation and Water for All, and all other partners which have joined the global campaign on the 10th Anniversary led by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Mr. Léo Heller.

The increased recognition of the importance of water and sanitation as fundamental human rights has contributed to progress seen over the last decade.  Since 2000, billions of people have gained access to basic water and sanitation services; maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by 37%; and mortality in children under five years old has halved. The 2030 Agenda elevated water and sanitation as a stand-alone goal in the SDG framework, and specifically reaffirmed commitments to the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

But despite this progress, we are still not on track for 2030.  Urgent action is needed to accelerate the progress in reaching SDG 6.  With only 10 years left for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, SDG 6 remains one of the Goals lagging furthest behind.  

And today, the pandemic is posing a serious threat to 2.1 billion people who are currently without access to safe water and unable to regularly and safely wash their hands to protect from the virus.  The rights to water and sanitation are now a matter of life and death for one bil­lion people who live in overcrowded informal settlements and slums worldwide.  Three billion people in the world, including nearly three-quarters of people in the least developed countries, do not have a handwashing facility with water and soap at home – the first line of defense against the virus.
Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic is posing grave risks of reversing the progress made and exposing the weakness of economic and social infrastructure and governance and accountability mechanisms that have resulted in growing inequalities between and within countries.

Last month, the High Commissioner joined the Sanitation and Water for All’s “World Leaders’ Call to Action” to achieve universal access to water and sanitation for all without discrimination.  More than 80 Heads of States and UN agencies, civil society and academic leaders have rallied  to this call.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore that the existing inequalities in access to water and sanitation heighten the risks for infection and deaths from the pandemic.  Limited access to water and poor sanitation can lead to a vicious cycle of increased risks of infection, serious health outcomes and poor living conditions.

In “building back better together”, we need to tackle the widespread inequalities and  entrenched structural discrimination that have made some people more vulnerable, both to the pandemic itself and to its larger economic and social impact.

As the commitment to leaving no one behind goes beyond immediate responses to the pandemic, we need to address the systemic weakness and underinvestment in the water and sanitation sector as well as in education, health and other relevant areas.

Critically, as recognized in the agenda of this important event, we need to address the question of accountability – a cornerstone of the human rights framework and a litmus test for the human rights-based implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

The human rights framework defines who is responsible for what and towards whom, and clarifies the nature of States’ obligations – including taking steps to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights. It also involves obligations of an immediate nature, notably to remove discriminatory laws, policies and other measures, and to assure minimum essential levels of each of the rights to assist those left furthest behind.

The human rights framework also establishes the conditions to hold duty-bearers answerable to rights-holders for their decisions and omissions, and provides mechanisms through which people can fulfille their rights, monitor progress transparently, sanction poor performance and seek redress for human rights violations.

In sum, water and sanitation are basic human rights, not mere commodities that can be bargained or traded off.

In the context of COVID-19 pandemic, the human rights obligations would require States to:

  • Identifying who are impacted the most from the pandemic, collecting and using disaggregated data to identify priorities, disparities in and barriers to access to water and sanitation, health care, social protection and other economic, social and cultural rights;
  • Analyzing patterns of discrimination, under-served areas, and identifying populations or groups facing persistent discrimination and marginalization.
  • Developing a fully costed strategy and plan of action addressing the minimum core obligations applicable to the rights to health, social security, water, housing and education as well as key gaps identified in the above assessment.
  • Ensuring the meaningful participation of all stakeholders in the planning process at national and subnational levels, with specific measures to secure the inclusion of marginalized groups and populations; and
  • Making available effective avenues for seeking remedies in case of rights violations.

The human rights framework makes it clear that States have the primary responsibility for the realization of human rights, but all stakeholders – including the private sector – have a share in these responsibilities to ensure respect for human rights.

However, the diversity of actors with key roles in the water and sanitation sector implies that the traditional State-centred accountability framework may leave some gaps.

Globalization and the neoliberal economic policies have often weakened the role of the State in the provision and regulation of water and sanitation services.  The widespread presence of informal and unregulated service providers that operate without a licence are outside of any form of accountability.  The fact is, many poor people in informal settlements have no choice but to pay more for water of lesser quality from these informal vendors, while the wealthier people living in areas with piped connection can enjoy access to cheaper and quality water at home.

In the context of a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of a clear accountability framework based on human rights standards and guidance, combined with the urgency of the situation in which actors operate, can create a gap where no one is held accountable for people’s lack of water and sanitation.

The UN human rights mechanisms provide an accountability framework at international level as well as a wealth of guidance, information and data that can help identify groups already behind and those most at risk of being left even further behind. 

Currently, however, among the 53,000 recommendations related to the SDGs under the Universal Periodic Review, only 1% (390 recommendations) are related to the SDG 6.  This represents a largely untapped potential to be exploited in strengthening the synergy between the UN human rights mechanisms and the governance and accountability mechanisms for water and sanitation at national, regional and global levels.

Earlier this year, the Secretary-General announced his “Call to Action for human rights”. Among its central tenets is that human rights should be at the centre of sustainable development.  The Call to Action appeals to all countries to put human rights principles and mechanisms front and centre in implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – including by creating wide avenues for civil society participation.

We can only deliver the SDG 6, and the human rights to water and sanitation, through coordinated efforts among all stakeholders in all relevant sectors.  Safe water and sanitation are not just guarantors of good health. They are gateways to multiple other rights: nutrition, food security, livelihoods, education, shelter, peace and stability.

Our Office is working with authorities, affected communities and civil society in various locations to promote the realization of these essential human rights. This includes, for example. a joint monitoring effort, together with local social justice centers, of the human rights impact of COVID-19 in informal settlements around Nairobi. In a very hands-on manner, this project helped the communities to express their priorities and participate in shaping the implementation of SDG 6.

Placing human rights at the centre of our response is key to building more inclusive, resilient and sustainable world after the pandemic. 

Our Office, together with our UN colleagues and partners, is committed to supporting your efforts to make the human rights to water and sanitation a reality for all.

Thank you.