July 2006: Our Country's Shameful Human Rights Record

Canada opposes recognizing water as a basic human right
July 1, 2006

Five million people die unnecessarily every year from lack of clean water. Each day, 6,000 children die from water-borne diseases. The United Nations estimates that, if current trends continue, more than two-thirds of the world’s population by 2025 will not have enough access to water.

“No single measure would do more to reduce disease and save lives in the developing world than bringing safe water and adequate sanitation to all,” says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. According to Friends of the Earth’s Report Nature For Sale: The Impacts of Privatizing Water and Biodiversity, access to clean water and sanitation would save an estimated $125 billion a year in direct medical expenses and other costs related to preventable water-related diseases.

At the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, all 189 members of the UN agreed on eight goals to achieve drastic reductions in poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women. A key target of that plan is to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

“There is no chance of reaching the Millennium Development Goals. . . without a major redirecting of water infrastructure investments away from centralized mega-projects and toward low-cost, decentralized, and community-based schemes,” says a 2006 Report by the International Rivers Network. Making Water Infrastructure Work for the Poor argues that the goals can be reached if the needs of the poor are put front and centre, with the focus on local, environmentally sustainable technologies.

The needs of the poor and the environment are not, however, the focus of the huge transnational water corporations. As demands intensify on the world’s finite supply of available clean water, they see an opportunity for immense profits. They view water as a potential multi-trillion-dollar annual business. At present, it is still mostly under public control, but these corporations aim to take it over as a marketplace commodity to be sold for profit.

“Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th,” says Fortune magazine.

Already, supplying water is a $400 billion profit-driven industry. And, using the clout of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the transnational water corporations are seeking to dominate world water policy so as to secure greater privatization and guarantee increased profits.

The World Water Forum, held every three years, is attended by government representatives from around the world. It is organized by the World Water Council and puts out statements and recommendations for world water policy. While appearing to be a bona fide UN organization, the World Water Council is, in fact, an entity set up by the World Bank and the transnational water corporations with a strong pro-privatization agenda.

While corporations want water to be treated as a commodity sold for profit, citizen groups around the world are working to have water recognized under national and international law as a basic human right. Canadians strongly believe that water must stay under public stewardship so as to meet the needs of people and the planet.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights agrees. It says that water is a human right and that governments have a responsibility to provide clean water to all citizens. “Water should be treated as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic good,” the UN Committee has declared. The World Health Organization, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women all recognize the human right to water.

The UN Committee, made up of independent human rights experts, monitors how well--or how badly--countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are implementing the rights in the Covenant. The Covenant covers basic rights essential for human life–such as food, shelter, and health care–and requires governments to progressively implement these rights to the maximum of their available resources.

Canada ratified this Covenant over five decades ago. The United States never did ratify it.

Since 1995, the Committee has issued strong statements on the right to water:

  • "Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”
  • “The continuing contamination, depletion and unequal distribution of water is exacerbating existing poverty.”
  • Governments have an immediate obligation to take “deliberate, concrete and targeted” steps towards the full realization of the right to water for all, particularly for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.
  • Governments must adopt effective legislative and other measures to restrain third parties, such as corporations or other entities, from denying equal access to adequate water and from polluting water resources.
  • Governments must establish “an effective regulatory system. . . which includes independent monitoring, genuine public participation, and imposition of penalties for non-compliance.”
  • Governments have an obligation to recognize the right to water within their national political and legal systems and to adopt a national water strategy and plan of action.
  • In order to ensure that there is sufficient and safe water for present and future generations, governments should adopt comprehensive and integrated strategies that address unsustainable extraction, diversion, and damming of water resources, contamination of watersheds, impacts of proposed development, assessing the impact of climate changes, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity.
  • A country’s policy on water should be developed through “a participatory and transparent process.”
  • Unaffordable increases in the price of water violate the Covenant and, “under no circumstances shall an individual be deprived of the minimum essential level of water.”

But the Canadian government, without any public or parliamentary debate, has taken a position against the human right to water. Canada was the only country to take this stand at a 2002 meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission, saying: "Canada does not accept that there is a right to drinking water and sanitation."

This is bad news in the struggle for human rights in the world. If there is no human right to water, then the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the most basic rights necessary for human survival and dignity, is dangerously weakened.

Canada’s position also spells disaster for both Canadian and world water policy. It jeopardizes public ownership and oversight of water policy; and it voids government accountability for the well-being of people, the planet, and future generations, leaving this precious resource at the mercy of the predatory, destructive ambitions of profit-driven transnational corporations and the behind-closed-doors machinations of international trade deals.

Canada’s track record on water, in fact, violates all of the standards set by the Human Rights Committee as listed above. When Canada appeared before the Committee in May of this year to explain its human rights record, the Committee specifically chastised Canada for its denial of the human right to water and “strongly recommended” that Canada change its position.

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At the same time as Canada opposes the human right to water at the UN, it has no problem at the World Bank supporting the forced privatization of water in developing countries--a policy that has caused immense suffering, illness, and deaths.

This policy violates the democratic rights of people in developing countries, as well as all the standards for water management spelled out by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It makes a mockery of the sovereignty of these countries.

In South Africa, for example, under World Bank pressure, water services were privatized in Johannesburg and other cities, leading to astronomical price hikes which people could not pay. Over 10 million people were cut off from water. In 2000, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the country’s biggest cholera outbreak occurred as a result of changing the free communal tap system to a privatized, pre-paid metering system. Over 120,000 people were infected with cholera and more than 300 people died.

Since 1990, according to the Catholic organization Development and Peace, "a third of World Bank loans were conditional upon some form of privatization of water services. This trend is growing."

Independent research organizations, such as the Halifax Initiative, document how privatization schemes have been carried out in a climate of non-transparency and non-accountability, and have frequently involved bribes and corruption. "Water privatization in developing countries is an ongoing disaster," says the World Development Movement.

“The World Bank is the single most influential institution in setting water infrastructure investment priorities in developing countries,” says the International Rivers Network. The World Bank’s April 2002 private sector development strategy explicitly specifies public services such as water as “frontier” sectors for private investment. Its International Finance Corporation branch finances private corporate purchases of public assets, and its Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency insures private purchasers against commercial and political risks.

If a privatization plan does not bring in the profits the corporation expected, the corporation can demand compensation from the developing country at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). The Centre’s role is to protect corporate profits; the public interest, the environment, and human rights are not protected.

The U.S. corporation Bechtel sued Bolivia for $25 million at the ICSID after it was driven out of Cochabamba by a popular uprising against Bechtel’s disastrous privatization of the city’s water services. Enron and its water services subsidiary Azurix Corporation filed a claim at the ICSID against Argentina after the collapse of their privatization of Buenos Aires’ water supply.

In contrast, no international body exists where corporations can be sued and fined for dangerous and irresponsible behaviour that violates human rights and environmental responsibilities.

Bad publicity over the disastrous record of water privatization projects has caused the World Bank to lessen the use of the term “privatization” in public documents. A survey, however, by the World Development Movement of 42 “Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers” approved by the IMF and the World Bank as of March 2005, found that 38 of the 42 plans included privatization provisions, and that 27 explicitly included provisions for private sector involvement in the provision of water services.

Through the leadership of Kairos, which represents 11 Canadian churches and church agencies, more than 230,000 Canadians have sent cards to our previous and present prime ministers calling on the government to recognize water as a human right and oppose its privatization. The Canadian government (both previous and present) has ignored them.

In addition to supporting water privatization through the World Bank, Canada is actively pursuing the privatization and deregulation of a broad range of water-elated services in the WTO negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

In 1997 alone, as a result of World Bank and WTO pressure, some US$157 billion worth of publicly-owned resources were transferred to private corporations around the world—a 70% increase over the previous year.

Corporations have no human rights responsibilities under international human rights law. Governments do. By denying the human right to water, the Canadian government washes its hands of a legal responsibility to manage water for the well-being of the public and the environment.

Canada has no up-to-date national law or strategy for managing Canada’s water resources. No debate has taken place in Parliament, nor any public discussion or involvement of civil society. Canada’s sovereignty over its water resources is vulnerable under trade regimes, just as Canada threatens the water sovereignty of developing countries through the World Bank and the WTO.

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This climate of non-transparency and non-accountability extends beyond the issue of water. When Canadians are asked, they cite human rights as a top priority. They want action taken to end poverty and hunger and to protect the human right to water--both in Canada and around the world.

Unfortunately, Canadians are not being asked. Instead, key decisions, hostile to human rights, are being made behind closed doors. This is not the way it's supposed to happen in a democracy. Human rights don't belong in the dark, where they die. Openness and public participation are essential.

Here are other crucial decisions taken without parliamentary or public debate. The Canadian government has:

  • argued that the interests of corporations under trade agreements should take priority over the human rights of Canadians; the government is arguing in court that rights in Canadian laws and in the Constitution do not apply to proceedings of NAFTA tribunals;
  • told Canadian courts that, when deciding cases, they should not give force to provisions in international human rights laws that Canada has ratified;
  • put the interests of agribusiness ahead of the rights of 1.4 billion people around the world who rely on farm-saved seed by seeking to end the ban on terminator seed (seed that is genetically engineered to become sterile after first harvest);
  • sought to dilute a UN treaty to outlaw forced disappearances; and
  • failed to take action on recommendations made to Canada by UN human rights bodies; instead of allowing for debate and follow-up, the government buried the recommendations down a black hole in Ottawa.

These decisions not only downgrade human rights, but also lack democratic legitimacy. When people's basic human rights are denied, such as the right to food, water and shelter, their dignity and security as human beings are violated. This violation diminishes us all.

We are told that strong measures are necessary to confront violence and bring about security in the world. It is well-known that denial of basic human rights leads to social conflict and violence. Canada should be building justice and security in the world by being a human rights leader, not a human rights downsizer.

(Kathleen Ruff is a former director of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, which in 2002 the provincial Liberal government downsized out of existence.)