On World Water Day, United Nations water and sanitation expert Catarina de Albuquerque critiqued countries including Canada for spearheading a move to eliminate references to the human right to water in a United Nations document that will frame negotiations at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.
De Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, stated that "some States, including Canada and the United Kingdom, are apparently proposing the removal of an explicit reference to the right to water and sanitation for all, from the first draft of the ‘Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development’ outcome document." The declaration is currently being discussed in New York.
Further, an international coalition of over 400 NGOs from 67 countries is challenging "an apparent systematic effort by particular governments to delete virtually all references to well-established rights to water, energy, food and development."
Canada’s opposition to the right to water is well known. Sources at the World Water Forum in Marseille, France confirmed earlier this month that the Forum’s Ministerial Declaration fails to explicitly affirm the UN recognized rights, because Canada insists on the weaker language of: “human rights obligations relating to access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation”.
Following the conference, Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda said that "access to clean water and basic sanitation is fundamental to human health and sustainable development," but stopped short of acknowledging access to water and sanitation as a human right.
In contrast, Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced on World Water Day that "the EU acknowledges the recent recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the UN General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council’s specification that this right is part of the human right to an adequate standard of living."
In a February 28 statement, Amnesty International expressed concern that the Ministerial Declaration does not commit states to implement the human rights to water and sanitation, because of "a small number of states, such as Canada, that have persistently opposed recognition of the rights to water and sanitation at the international level, over the last decade."
In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted overwhelmingly to recognize the human right to water and sanitation, but Canada abstained from the vote—having tried unsuccessfully for years to prevent the decision. Canada and Tonga are now the only countries in the world that do not to recognize water and sanitation as a human right.
Interestingly, the Canadian government’s opposition to the human right does not reflect the views of Canadian citizens. A poll conducted by the Trudeau Foundation and University of Manitoba found that 96 per cent of Canadians agree that water is a human right.
The Canadian public’s support for the human right to water and sanitation is unsurprising. Canada has vast supplies of fresh water for its small population of 35 million, who expect the government to ensure water and sanitation services for all.
The Canadian government appears to disagree. In June 2010, prior to the UN vote, then-Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon stated that he “will not put Canada in a position where our sovereign right to protect our natural resources is compromised by any international treaties…”
UN experts have assured the Canadian government that the UN resolution obliges Canada to provide clean water and satiation to its own people, but does not require Canada to share its water resources with another country.
Critics contend that the government is acting in the interests of multinational corporations, and not Canadian citizens. Council of Canadians Chairperson Maude Barlow said: "Here we have an example of a country like Canada that is using the World Water Forum, a non-democratic forum run by multinational water corporations, to try and negate what has been achieved at the United Nations General Assembly."
"Canada is legally obligated to write a right to water implementation plan," Barlow said, "but the Canadian government is using the illegitimate space at the World Water Forum to try to negate the right to water."
The World Water Forum has come under increasing attack lately, accused of being dominated by corporations, and of trying to rewrite the historical UN General Assembly vote. The damage is beginning to show. 25,000 attended the last forum in Istanbul, but Benedito Braga, the chief organizer for the Marseille forum, admitted that attendance at this year’s forum was about 9,000 people. There have been reports of up to 1,000 lunches being thrown away each day because of the drop in attendance.
However, this year’s Alternative World Water Forum was bigger than the one in Istanbul, and activists now point to it as the future venue for international agreements on water issues.
Even the Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in on the issue, saying at a Sunday Mass that "despite some progress, an adequate access to potable water is not yet guaranteed to a good portion of the world’s population". The Pope added that all countries must "consider water a common resource and not saleable goods, [ therefore] water management with a non-merchandising approach [is required]."
Top Vatican official and secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Bishop Mario Toso, supported the Pope’s speech, and said that "reasonable access to clean water is a fundamental human right and its distribution should not be left solely to private companies seeking profit."
De Albuquerque agrees, saying "In the context of the Rio+20 agenda...who does not want a future where every single individual enjoys safe drinking water? Who does not want a future where nobody dies due to drinking unsafe water? Who does not want to eradicate the indignity and humiliation of open defecation?"
The Canadian government is under pressure to prove that they understand these rhetorical questions.