July 28, 2010 / 6:20 PM / in 7 years

UN assembly asserts water rights, some disagree

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly asserted a global right to water and sanitation in a resolution on Wednesday, but more than 40 countries abstained, saying no such right yet existed in international law.

<p>A woman collects water from a public water supply in Soweto in Johannesburg June 22, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius</p>

Some 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water, more than 2.6 million have no basic sanitation and around 1.5 million children under age 5 die each year from water- and sanitation-linked diseases, sponsors of the resolution said.

The non-binding measure, presented to the assembly by Bolivia, said the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation was “a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

And in a clause that appeared to put the onus of rectifying the situation on rich countries, it called on states and international organizations to “scale up efforts” to provide drinking water and sanitation for all.

The resolution passed with 122 votes in favor, none against and 41 abstentions. The abstainers were mainly developed countries, although European Union members Germany and Spain voted for the measure.

Abstaining countries argued that an independent expert, Portuguese lawyer Catarina de Albuquerque, was due to report to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council next year on countries’ obligations related to water and sanitation.

They accused sponsors of the resolution of seeking to preempt her findings.

U.S. delegate John Sammis said the resolution “falls far short of enjoying the unanimous support of member states and may even undermine the work underway in Geneva” and charged that sponsors had rushed it through.

British delegate Nicola Freedman said London “does not believe that there exists at present sufficient legal basis under international law to either declare or recognize water or sanitation as free-standing human rights.”

Washington-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch, however, backed what it called a landmark resolution.

“It’s time to reach consensus that the world’s poor deserve recognition of this human right without further delay or equivocation,” it said in a statement that accused the United States of “obstructing recognition of the human right to water.”

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