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Canadian recognition of human rights to water and sanitation must be followed by action

    June 12, 2012

    Amnesty International welcomes the Canadian government’s recent indication that it is prepared to explicitly recognize the rights to water and sanitation. In an interview with Embassy Magazine on May 29th Environment Minister Peter Kent stated that “by the time we get to Rio, we will make it clear that Canada recognizes the right to safe drinking water and to basic sanitation.” The statement refers to the upcoming Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Brazil June 20-22, 2012.

    Canada has, for many years and through several different governments, refused to acknowledge the existence of the rights to water and sanitation under international law. That opposition has run counter to a growing number of authoritative pronouncements from various international bodies clearly recognizing the rights to water and sanitation. 

    The UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly have all passed resolutions recognizing these important rights. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has made it clear that the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights do include protection of the rights to water and sanitation. 

    In recent weeks Canada had become isolated in insisting that there be no reference to the right to water and sanitation in the outcome document to be adopted at the Rio+20 Conference.

    Canada’s change in position, while long overdue, is a vitally important step forward.  Around the world, failure to uphold the rights to water and sanitation lead to death, illness and considerable hardship for millions of people. Urgent and concerted action to protect these crucial rights is necessary at both international and national levels. Canada enjoys abundant water but also faces serious challenges in providing safe, clean water for all Canadians, particularly on many First Nations reserves across the country.  In recognizing the existence of these rights, Canada can and must now ensure they are enjoyed equally by all Canadians, and also play a leading role in global efforts to strengthen the protection of these rights around the world.

    Canada should demonstrate its commitment to the rights to water and sanitation by giving urgent priority to closing the resource gap for water and sanitation in First Nations communities. According to a federal audit released last summer, 25 percent of First Nations people on reserves depend on water systems that are classified as a high threat to human health and the environment. In addition, an estimated 20,000 First Nations people living on reserves have no running water or sewage. In 2006, an expert panel commissioned by the federal government concluded that the primary problem was inadequate resources, including infrastructure and training. The panel urged the federal government to provide the resources necessary "to ensure that the quality of First Nations water and wastewater is at least as good as that in similar communities and that systems are properly run and maintained.”

    As the government develops and announces its new position, Amnesty International urges that the following key concerns be reflected.

    • The terminology used should be the ‘rights to water and sanitation’ rather than the ‘right to safe water and basic sanitation’. 

    • The term ‘safe water’ may be misunderstood in practice as referring only to drinking water. As defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to water refers to water for personal and domestic uses, including a range of activities in addition to drinking, including personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation, personal and household hygiene.

    • The term ‘basic sanitation’ introduces ambiguity into the government’s recognition of this right. None of the UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, and World Health Assembly have qualified the right as being limited to ‘basic’ sanitation. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation has defined sanitation in human rights terms “as a system for the collection, transport, treatment and disposal or re-use of human excreta and associated hygiene” and her definition has been utilised by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  This definition of sanitation is already restrictive – excluding, for example, stormwater drainage and garbage disposal. It is not necessary for the government to further restrict the scope of its recognition of the right to sanitation.

    • In recognizing the rights to water and sanitation, the government should affirm the statement in several recent UN Human Rights Council resolutions that they are “derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity.” This clarifies that these rights are contained in human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

    • The rights to water and sanitation should be recognized in the plural, as rights, and not as a singular right. While they are interconnected, they are also separate and very much in need of their own focused attention and action. Many national and international programs to promote ‘water and sanitation’ often tend to ignore the latter. There is increasing consensus in the development community that sanitation deserves special attention in order to prevent its neglect. The consequences of neglecting sanitation are dire. Infectious-diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera are caused not only by a lack of clean water, but also the lack of clean toilets and associated hygiene promotion and education.  According to the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, 2.6 billion people currently do not have access to adequate sanitation. Lack of access to adequate toilets (including latrines) is one of the primary causes of infant mortality and demeans the dignity of people denied such access. Lack of access to a toilet in or next to the home puts women at risk when they have to access facilities at night.

    John Tackaberry,
    Media Relations,
    Amnesty International Canada
    613-744-7667, ext 236