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Welcome to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Wanted: Human Rights in Rio

Twenty years later, we should expect more human rights, not less.

A young woman pumps water in Eritrea © UN Photo/Milton Grant

That is the rallying cry of human rights and development experts, as well as over a thousand civil society organisations from over 100 countries, as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June fast approaches.

Negotiations on the outcome of the conference, now entering a critical stage at the United Nations in New York, have so far left many disappointed for their lack of attention to human rights.

“You cannot think in the 21st Century about sustainable development without thinking about human rights,” said Craig Mokhiber of the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR) at a panel discussion on April 27 in New York on human rights and Rio+20, as the June conference is known.

He observed that the first United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio 20 years ago recognised the importance of human rights to sustainable development. That, moreover, was before the human rights-based approach to development became the mantra of development agencies and only five years after the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development.

“The Rio Declaration put human beings at the centre of sustainable development. It called for their participation in decision-making; it called for their access to information and to justice; and it called for the fulfilment of the rights to development,” Mokhiber said.
The point was underlined by Richard Morgan of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking on behalf the UN’s inter-agency initiative that seeks to integrate human rights in the organisation’s development work.

Morgan said the human rights principles of participation, non-discrimination, accountability, empowerment and rule of law were essential to achieving sustainable development.

Acknowledging improvements in the Rio+20 draft outcome document, he highlighted crucial human rights elements that were still missing, in particular mention of stunting in the context of nutrition; focus on slum dwellers; and reaffirmation of the right to water and sanitation.

Ralf Schröer of the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations, alluding to the theme of the forthcoming Rio Conference, said that the right to water and sanitation “should – and must – be part of the future we want”.

“People should not be forced to choose between paying the water bills and pharmacy bills or the grocery bills. This is not acceptable from a human rights perspective,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Development policies, she said, must reflect the principles of accountability, affordability and cultural acceptability. In this connection, a number of speakers emphasized the importance of carrying out human rights impact assessments on policies and their implementation.

The lack of any mention of right to a healthy environment in the draft outcome document was cited as a major flaw by Alyssa Johl of the Centre for International Environmental Law.

Reform of the international financial, trade and investment architecture; effective market regulation; and accountability mechanisms were cited by various speakers as the building blocks for development policies that conform to countries’ human rights commitments.

“Markets by themselves don’t produce good outcomes. What is lacking is market governance....injecting governance into markets so that market failures don’t happen,” said Steven Stone of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), adding that human rights provides direction for such governance.

Tetet Lauron of the non-governmental organisation IBON Foundation was “alarmed by suggestions of some countries to delete references to human rights” and to banish from the negotiations the international cooperation dimension contained in the eighth Millennium Development Goal. Developed countries, she observed, appear to be opposed to any references to the right to development despite it being endorsed many times before by heads of state. She reminded governments that they cannot pick and choose when it comes to human rights.

In a recent letter (PDF) , the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay appealed to UN Member States to fully integrate key human rights considerations in the Rio+20 outcome document. She urged them to agree to “pursue a model of economic growth that is socially and environmentally sustainable, just and equitable, and respectful of all human rights.”

The panel discussion was organised by the United Nations; the Permanent Missions of Costa Rica, Germany, Liechtenstein, Norway and the Maldives to the United Nations; the Centre for International Environmental Law; the Council of Canadians; and IBON International.

2 May 2012