Water and Sanitation as Human Rights

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca


Students at the U.N. International Nursery School in New York viewing a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1950. Source: U.N.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation of international human rights law, inspiring a rich body of legally binding treaties. Since the declaration was adopted 64 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly has passed a number of declarations adding rights to the original document. The human right to water and sanitation was declared in July 2010.

In recent years, significant progress has been made toward adopting the declaration as an operational framework for international development cooperation. These efforts led to the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA), particularly within the family of U.N. agencies. In 2003 the U.N. created the HRBA Common Learning Package and an online portal for the U.N. Common Understanding on HRBA.

Although the U.N. is the most interested actor in adopting the HRBA and its related methodologies, these are also useful for all NGOs and governments. The third point in the Common Understanding sets a clear purpose for development cooperation programs: "contribute to the development of the capacities of duty-bearers to meet their obligations and of rights-holders to claim their rights."


The U.N. General Assembly. Source: Patrick Gruban

In Ecuador, the national government is one of the actors adopting the HRBA in its policies. In a previous post, I described how the country, through innovative governance, is challenging conventional definitions of human development. One of the most important milestones of this innovation is the "Guide to the Formulation of Sectorial Public Policies." Based on the HRBA, this guide has gained attention in the international community, mostly for advancing a national water policy soon after the U.N. declared water and sanitation to be human rights.

The HRBA is strongly focused on diagnosis methods, through which problems are identified and priorities defined. It offers an adaptable framework at this stage to guide the politics of policy development in the international and domestic spheres.

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