Utrecht Law Review (Oct 2020)

The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation: An Assessment of Its First Dozen Years

  • Henry F. Carey

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 16, no. 2


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The Special Rapporteur for Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation is a norm entrepreneur, both as a norm monitor and clarifier, as well as an advocate for reparative action for victims. Two incumbents have identified fundamental principles of these two human rights and many implementation requirements for their protection. Appropriate attention has been placed on various vulnerable groups that require greater efforts at norm compliance through policy responses. However, many countries have tremendous inequalities in access to water and sanitation, which are largely unacknowledged and even unnoticed, for which states have a positive responsibility, but which are not easily noticed because of weak civil society monitoring. Both mandate holders have much of their efforts on country visits with governments interested in improvement—which is desirable for both the countries concerned and for the development of rubrics for institutionalized lessons learned, best practices and methodologies for information collection and analysis. Considerable efforts have also been made on norm development that hopefully encourages emulation. More emphasis is needed to identify and clarify legally-binding, hard law requirements in implementation, not just soft-law non-legally binding recommendations to governments and their public and private partners, as well as specifying the binding rights of the vulnerable. Also needed are more cataloguing of government violations of the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, especially outside of Latin America, from where the two mandate holders come. Particular attention should be paid to countries that refuse country visits. Greater use of reliable information concerning pollution of drinking water, poor sanitation, economic development without consultation or impact analysis, exorbitant pricing of water, and inadequate sanitation that allows public defecation. This office should also coordinate generally more often with other Special Procedures on many inter-sectional issues, but above all else, on climate change issues, which present an existential threat to rights protection. While there are many competing claims for resources, important issues regarding access to safe drinking water and sanitation go unnoticed by this office because of its insufficient attention to early warning and urgent action procedures for these violations. However, the contributions of the two mandate holders to norm development has been clear, effective and deserving of praise.