Friday, August 6, 2010

New Human Right Announced

Water has now been officially declared as a human right according to the United Nations. Last week, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution to call on governments to provide water to their people. The UN has not recognized water as a human right until now as it was not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948.
Given a right to life and water as a necessity for life, it does seem (at a rhetorical level) a small step. The devil, as always, is in the details. Overall, and given the topic of discussion, I would say my response is tepid.

In the jargon, the right to life is generally deemed a "negative" right: no other person or government can take away my life. A "positive" right to life requires the "duty-bearer" to actually promote my longevity. The implications are vastly different.

Canada and other English-speaking countries tended to fight against the new right, including trying unsuccessfully to amend the language of the right to access to water and sanitation rather than a right to water and sanitation themselves. As Easterly (one and two), and others have pointed out, though, for a right to have meaning there has to be a duty-bearer: someone responsible for providing the right and accountable for failure. Jacob Mchangama, head of legal affairs for the Danish think tank CEPOS, says this is a problem with the new right:
this declaration will not help those whose health and quality of life are threatened by the lack of clean water and sanitation. For rights to have meaning, it must be clear what they are and who is responsible for upholding them.... The right to clean water and sanitation is far less definable and depends on economic development, technology and infrastructure.
Behind the scenes, this is as much a debate over whether to privatize water markets or not and to what extent governments should be involved in providing them. Oddly enough, both the pro and con side are complaining about inappropriate government action in this regard, with the con side worried about authoritarian governments using the right to water as a shield to provide water only to their supporters ... which doesn't make a lot of sense to me:
Above all, if people have a right to water and sanitation, other people must provide it – in practice, governments using public money. ... So this is really a call for state intervention, at the expense of other priorities and freedoms – and water is no more a practically enforceable human right than other essential commodities, such as food, clothing or shelter. ... Giving governments ultimate control over the supply of water may even be dangerous, because authoritarian regimes can use their power to punish the recalcitrant and reward their supporters.

The new right does not delimit how the right to water must be fulfilled. There is nothing preventing a society making use of private water markets to provide most people water and sanitation, or people in a particularly hard-to-reach area, or only as an augment to public efforts. The creation of this right does not empower bad governments to be worse. Saying "your people have a right to water" does not open any possibility for misusing water that didn't already exist. Quite the opposite, it is a way to make bad governments more accountable, potentially to their own citizens, at least through international pressure. The likelihood at the moment, though, given the UN's record on defending the negative rights, is close to zero.

Which brings up one other question. assume for sake of argument that the declaration is utterly without teeth. Should we not still declare our principles for the sake of declaring them?

Hat tip: PNB

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