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U.N. General Assembly Declares Access To Clean Water, Sanitation A Human Right

The U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday declared access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation to be a “‘human right’ in a resolution that more than 40 countries including the United States didn’t support,” the Associated Press reports (Lederer, 7/28).

The non-binding text, presented to the assembly by Bolivia, “declares the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life,” according to Agence France-Presse (7/28). Xinhua/People’s Daily Online reports that “[e]very year 3.5 million people die of waterborne illness” (7/29).

The resolution “adopted by the 192-member world body expresses deep concern that an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation,” the AP continues. The Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) “adopted by world leaders in 2000 call for the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation to be cut in half by 2015,” the news service reports (Lederer, 7/28).

In the measure, the Assembly calls on U.N. “member states and international organizations to offer funding, technology and other resources to help poorer countries scale up their efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone,” according to U.N. News Centre.

Additionally, the resolution backs the U.N. Human Rights Council recommendation that the U.N. independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation report annually to the General Assembly. This annual report will focus predominantly on the “principle challenges of achieving the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation, as well as progress towards the relevant” MDGs, U.N. News Centre writes (7/28).

“The resolution passed with 122 votes in favor, none against and 41 abstentions,” Reuters reports, adding that “[t]he abstainers were mainly developed countries” (Worsnip, 7/28).

“Some of those who abstained were concerned that the resolution did not clearly define the scope of this new human right and the obligations it entailed,” ABC News reports (7/28). Abstaining countries also “said the resolution could undermine a process in the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva to build a consensus on water rights,” according to the BBC, which noted Australia, Botswana, Canada, the U.K. and U.S. were among the group who abstained from voting on the resolution (7/28). According to RTTNews, “the nations that supported the measure, including China, Russia, Germany, France, Spain and Brazil, feel that the resolution will provide impetus to the ongoing consensus-building process in Geneva” (7/29).

Addressing the General Assembly, U.S. diplomat John Sammis explained that while the U.S. “‘is deeply committed to finding solutions to our water challenges,’ … he said the resolution ‘describes a right to water and sanitation in a way that is not reflective of existing international law,'” the U.K. Press Association reports (7/28).

Others disagreed, Reuters reports: “‘It’s time to reach consensus that the world’s poor deserve recognition of this human right without further delay or equivocation,’ the [Washington-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch] said in a statement that accused the United States of ‘obstructing recognition of the human right to water.'”

Reuters also includes comments by a British delegate on London’s reasoning for abstaining their vote from the resolution (7/28).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.