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Jacob Mchangama, head of legal affairs at the Danish think-tank CEPOS
Jacob Mchangama, head of legal affairs at the Danish think-tank CEPOS

Web-exclusive commentary

Counterpoint: Water is the wrong right Add to ...

Considering that 2.5 billion people lack sanitation and 900 million people are without access to safe drinking water, last week's United Nations General Assembly resolution on water might seem like a welcome development. But declaring water and sanitation as human rights constitutes a threat to both international law and the poor themselves.

In international law, individually enforceable human rights are things the state cannot take away from you - life, liberty, property - not things that the state must provide for you with taxpayer money. More importantly, 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. Take free speech: If a government arrests a dissident for peaceful statements or thoughts, it is breaching its obligation to uphold a clear human right. Courts would then be responsible for upholding this right.

The right to clean water and sanitation is far less definable and depends on economic development, technology and infrastructure. Above all, if people have a right to water and sanitation, other people must provide it - in practice, governments using public money. Such privileges are called "positive rights," as opposed to "negative rights" that cannot be taken away from you. 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.

This resolution follows naturally from activists' ideological resistance to the privatization of water. This ignores the countless examples, from Bolivia to Egypt, where governments have failed to provide clean water due to corruption, cronyism, mismanagement and waste. It also ignores successful private models in Bolivia, Chile, Denmark and elsewhere. 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 resolution also devalues true human rights. By demanding that developed countries "provide financial resources and technology transfer" to developing countries, the resolution implies that the rich are violating the human rights of people without water in poor countries. This allows many countries, such as the proposer, Bolivia, to deflect criticism away from their own real rights violations - arbitrary detentions, corruption, censorship - while portraying themselves as victims of the West.

So far, defenders of traditional human rights have been reluctant to criticize this political agenda. No one wants to be perceived as being against clean water and human rights. So democratic countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain and Norway voted for the resolution with Egypt, China, Pakistan and Cuba, which deny human rights to their citizens, while 41 countries abstained, including Canada, the United States, Australia and Britain. No country had the courage to reject it, leaving the way open for the adoption of a legally binding protocol.

Those who are against the idea, such as the United States, hope this non-binding resolution will not matter because "the legal implications of a declared right to water had not yet been fully considered," as U.S. diplomat John Sammis told delegates. Such procedural theory ignores the political reality of governments gaining greater power over their citizens' lives, particularly in poor countries where oppressive economic regimes are supported by Western charities and activists.

If democratic states abandon the freedoms of true human rights, they abandon the poor to many more decades of state-imposed poverty, corruption and inefficiency.

Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the Danish think-tank CEPOS and an external lecturer of international human-rights law at the University of Copenhagen.

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