UN Recognizes Sanitation and Water as a Basic Right, US Abstains from Vote

Recently the United Nations General Assembly decided to adopt a resolution recognizing water and sanitation as a basic human right.

Even though resolutions about things like water and sanitation might not initially seem like explicitly feminist issues, I wrote on Akimbo that I consider this to be a huge win for women’s health, mostly because of all the connections that exist between clean water and sanitation and health benefits for women and girls in many regions of the world. This is true here in the U.S., but this is especially true in regions where women are tied to agricultural production (farming, picking, gathering) and where they bear the primary responsibility of gathering water necessary for families to bathe, cook, and clean (most developing countries). It’s also true because of the reality that women and girls are often made vulnerable to violence and sexual assault as they walk to gather clean water for their families. So I definitely saw this as a feminist win in the sense that it marks one small step forward in working to ensure that women are able to lead lives that are just, healthy, and free from sexual coercion and violence.


While most people agreed with me, there were a few noticeable exceptions- like oh, say, the United States. They chose to abstain from the vote, along with 40 other countries including some of the European and industrialized countries like Britain, Australia, Austria, Canada, Greece, Sweden, Japan, Israel, South Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, as well as some developing countries, including Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Zambia, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago.

So what gives with all the abstentions on a resolution that can bring so much good? It’s hard to say for certain why the resolution proved politically divisive, for different countries. On his reasons for abstaining from the vote, the US delegate said the resolution was “not reflective of existing international law; as there is no ‘right to water and sanitation’ in an international legal sense as described by this resolution.” Hmmm- sounds to me like a damn good reason to pass a resolution recognizing such a right.

While I am disappointed that so many countries—including the United States—abstained from voting, I’m nonetheless psyched that the resolution was ultimately passed despite politics and pettiness that might have gotten in the way. Because putting all that stuff aside, what really matters is that the effect of the resolution will have on women’s lives. And I think we can be confident that clean water and sanitation is something women around the world deserve.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I’m definatley dissapointed. Especially in Canada not voting, since I’m Canadian, but I know why they didn’t. In my environmental science class, we read some articles talking about how Canada will sell our water supply to the U.S. for money (more than we already do…). Water should not be bought and sold to the highest bidder! Maybe if we start respecting that, we can stop polluting our waters so it won’t have to come to that.

  2. Posted August 10, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Wow, this seems really pointless. A UN resolution. Have any of those, um, actually worked or rather, been effective overall?

    And no, I’m not criticizing the idea of a UN, but the UN that we have. And Singh is right, another obvious and pointless resolution by the UN that does absolutely nothing, and will easily be ignored. It’s a first step, true, but the UN has committed itself to many first steps without lifting the other foot. I personally think a group of committed economic powers committed towards democracy, equality, and human rights, working together, would be more effective.

    Of course, the question is if we do have a bunch of economic powers truly committed towards those things…

  3. Posted August 10, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting headspace to be in.

    I’m sure the average American disconnects with these “basic rights” talks because the term “basic right” butts up against the term “entitlement.” So Joe Average is going to hear someone say that Water and Sanitation are a Basic Right and conjure up a picture of someone walking out to the middle of the Sahara Desert, plunking down and building a shack, then contacting their government and demanding a water and sewer line be laid because they have a Basic Right to water and sanitation.

    …When of course, the entire exurb development movement that has taken over in the U.S. over the last 20-30 years have been exactly this. Whole communities (particularly in the southwest) would not be possible if it weren’t for careful water rights management.

    What people aren’t considering is… you could have a small town near a small water table capable of just meeting the water requirements of the community: people are able to have drinking water, water their crops, and get by without a whole lot of leftover. But then a luxury hotel decides to build a resort right next to your little town, and drills a bunch of wells to tap into your very carefully rationed water table, and then on top of that, they place a bunch of sewer run-off pipes right outside of your town. This is currently happening in several developing nations, and there is absolutely no will to protect the water and sanitation rights of people who have lived in a region for thousands of years.

  4. Posted August 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Resolutions like this bring out the Benthamist in me, because much like other General Assembly declarations this is the same nonsense upon stilts.

    Access to clean water and sanitation is a human good, not a human right, and is dependent on a variety of conditions and technologies. Sitting around fighting about whether or not it is a “right” obfuscates the actual issue, which is water management (an issue that often goes hand in hand with industrialization and issues of population management).

    Calling water a basic human right ignores issues like national self determination and the ability of a national government and citizens to use and cultivate said resources. It also has no enforcement mechanism to give its “right” any power.

    It’s also worth noting that while the US abstained from this vote it was also the primary provider of clean water to Haiti during the earthquake of 2010, using the desalination plant on board the USS Carl Vinson to provide potable water to the population there.

    As with other issues like this that the UN attempts to address, conditions, technology, and our willingness to act will trump any declaration of “rights” by the General Assembly.

    This isn’t a win for women’s health. Not by a long shot. We all already knew that clean water and sanitation are crucial to human health. This resolution doesn’t do a single thing to change that.

    An actual win for women’s health would be a rigorous commitment by UN member nations to aid nations who have populations in water stressed areas through the transfer and funding of desalination and sanitation technology.

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