Has anyone ever asked you “What do you do?” An interesting philosophical question for sure, but one of my condensed answers often is “I work for water justice and sanitation justice.” This means I want to participate in a more just water and sanitation world on individual, community, and political scales. In 2010, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council officially adopted The Human Right to Water and Sanitation resolutions. These resolutions represented the emergence of an international legal framework to recognize water and sanitation (WatSan) as a human right through availability, quality, acceptability, accessibility, and affordability. In my mind, this consecrated right was also a potential catalyst for a more just WatSan world. But I had never stepped back to ponder why the right to WatSan might seem equivalent to WatSan justice until I read an insightful paper called Forests, development, and the globalisation of justice by Forsyth and Sikor. Their paper provides a background on the historical connection of rights and justice concepts and challenges readers to evaluate universal notions of such.
Here’s a quick history on the right to WatSan as documented on the great The Rights to Water and Sanitation website. In 1948, close to 50 states agreed in the UN General Assembly to sign a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which identified about 30 rights: the right to education, the right to a standard of living for adequate health, and so forth. This Declaration led to multi-national treaties, national constitutions, and national laws. In 1966, two legally binding treaties identified a right to life and right to health which inferred WatSan were necessary to human life. In 2002, a UN committee issued a comment on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights saying “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Finally, Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque was appointed in 2008 to work with civil society organizations and states to identify best practices for WatSan, clarify the legality of WatSan human rights, and make recommendations towards MDG 7C. It was likely her work, along with a proposal from Bolivia, that forwarded the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 in July 2010 “calling on states and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, in scaling up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation.” There were 122 states voting for the resolution, 0 against, and 41 abstentions (including the United States). The UN Human Rights Council passed an updated resolution the next year. But will this universal human right to WatSan lead to a more just WatSan world?
Above Photo: Urban Semillas.
Forsyth and Sikor offer a case study of UN REDD – a global mechanism that provides rewards to countries whose forestry practices augment global carbon stocks. They describe efforts within this program to incorporate a traditional view of justice distributing benefits fairly and recognizing all stakeholders. The authors argue this type of justice does “carry embedded notions of value, knowledge, property, access, and governance that need to be interrogated more fully.” They describe how this traditional definition of justice related to fairness in allocation and equality of opportunity arose from John Rawls. In their case study – even amidst discussions by multi-lateral organizations, states, and NGOs – certain forest users’ concerns about justice were not allowed to enter the conversation. Interestingly, Forsyth and Sikor highlight that a Rawlsian view of justice relies upon distributions of property rights, and they identify three problems with linking rights to justice: 1) difficult decisions about types rights to be granted in pursuit of just distributions, 2) universal definitions including some people and excluding others, and 3) property rights may still result in unjust distributions. They conclude: “there is an urgent need, therefore, to make the historical context of property rights and their relationships to justice transparent.”
Let us take these three problems of linking rights to justice to begin to probe into The Human Right to Water and Sanitation process. First, difficult decisions must be made about types of rights to be granted to ensure just distributions. Some aspects of WatSan resources (providing sustenance to humans and animals, filtering pollutants, sustaining plant life, etc.) might seem likely to take precedence. But the key question really is what actors decided which WatSan rights were defined in the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Organization resolutions? Second, universal definitions can result in “dispossession and exclusion” of rights for some people. WatSan rights, like forest rights, are not a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, think about varying levels of water purity in different locations, varying amounts of water at certain times of the year, different cultural uses of water, etc. Were these types of concerns incorporated into the 2011 Compilation of good practices for WatSan human rights? And how are these good practices adapted by region? Third, it is important to understand the process of distribution for property rights. WatSan rights are not always considered property, and they are not distributed on a global scale. WatSan rights are typically distributed on national and regional (or even watershed) scales. It could be valuable to decipher the scale of WatSan distributions in various locations to see what actors benefit from such distributions. As my Science and Justice professor recently said, he thinks Forsyth and Sikor call for participation of a different kind: to ask what is water and for who; to ask what is justice and for who; and to finally move into talk about WatSan rights based on those previous conversations. The authors themselves also say that Amartya Sen’s view of justice might be more helpful because it questions “what is being allocated and whose values and agendas are represented.”