Monday, March 24, 2008
Canada and US
Oppose The Right To Water
By Maude Barlow
"The Canadian government is at it again."
That was the opening line in an urgent email we received this week from an international NGO working to promote the right to water at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE) had just participated in a session where the Canadian government had undermined a key resolution tabled by Germany and Spain at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on March 10 that calls for water and sanitation to be recognized as a human right.
The resolution, which will be voted on within the week, is currently being debated at the UNHRC session in Geneva that ends on March 28. Canada has presented numerous objections that have been echoed by the United States.
As it stands, Canada and the United States are the only two countries to go on record at the United Nations to oppose the right to water.
Canada is a member of the UNHRC until 2009; the United States is not an elected member but is allowed to engage under the rules of the Council.
The joint resolution promoted by Germany and Spain aims to establish a "special rapporteur" with the mandate to provide guidance on the right to water and sanitation, identify best practices, investigate country situations and promote the right internationally.
This follows a report by Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stating that "specific, dedicated and sustained attention to safe drinking water and sanitation is currently lacking at the international level" and recommending that access to safe drinking water and sanitation be recognized as a human right.
Canada is working to weaken the resolution by demanding that references to the right to water and sanitation be removed and that the scope be reduced. Canada wants the proposed position of "special rapporteur" to be downgraded to "independent expert" serving for only one year instead of the proposed three years. Canada is also opposing visits by this expert to individual countries and the granting of a mandate enabling them to clarify the content of the right to water and sanitation.
This is the third time in six years that member nations of the UN have pushed for recognition of the human right to water. On each occasion, Canada has rejected the efforts to have water recognized as a right.
At a 2002 meeting, Canada stood alone among 53 countries by voting against the appointment of a special rapporteur on water. More recently, Canada reacted negatively to an October 2006 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council to conduct a study on the right to water.
The debate occurs as communities around the world observe today's 15th UN World Water Day.
The Liberal party defended the Harper government's position in the media earlier this week, claiming that a right to water would make Canada vulnerable to bulk water exports. This is utterly untrue.
All transboundary water issues were explicitly excluded from the scope of the resolution. A human rights convention is between a government and its citizens. Recognition of the right to water in no way affects a country's sovereign right to manage its own resources.
The reality is the resolution would be at odds with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which defines water as a good and an investment. The real issue is that the Liberals, like the Conservatives, refuse to reopen NAFTA to remove water. They would rather deny Canada and the world the right to water.
Recognizing water as a human right is vital to ensuring that governments address the reality of more than a billion people who are currently without access to clean water.
The fact that water is not acknowledged as a right has allowed decision-making over water policy to slip away from the UN and governments toward institutions promoting water privatization, which has harmed the environment and cut poor communities off from their water supplies around the world.
This motion by Germany and Spain presents new hope for groups who want to see an international solution to the global water crisis. Negotiations on the issue are expected to conclude this week and the Council of Canadians has responded to the call of our international allies by mobilizing thousands across the country to demand that our government reverse its position.
We will be marking World Water Day by working to promote the right to water in nearly 40 communities across the country. Sadly, our government seems determined to mark the day by denying that same right.
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