Bolivia’s President Evo Morales won praise July 28 when the United Nations General Assembly approved a groundbreaking Bolivian resolution on the right of all human beings to water and sanitation. The vote was 122 to 0, with 41 abstaining.
The issue of water has great symbolic importance in Bolivia. The series of grassroots uprisings that culminated with the election of Evo Morales as president in 2006 began with the Cochabamba Water War of 2000. The rebellion was sparked by price increases imposed by a consortium (Aguas del Tunari) of mostly foreign businesses, including the U.S. Bechtel Corporation, which took over Cochabamba’s water services when these were privatized as a condition for financial support from the World Bank. The mass movement physically drove the foreign companies out of Cochabamba. Similar uprisings happened in La Paz. Morales’ MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party gained strength through these protests.
Bolivia’s victory over water privatization has jangled the nerves of transnational corporations who are invested in this field, because they rightly fear that other countries will follow suit. But the issue of access to clean water is becoming more urgent every year due to population growth, global warming and desertification, and the failure of a world economic system based on private profit to prevent millions of people from sliding into extreme poverty.
The resolution, presented by Bolivia and cosponsored by Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Sadi Arabia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and others, includes the following:
1. It declares that the right of access to water and sanitation is an essential human right without which other human rights cannot be fully enjoyed.
2. It calls on all states and international organizations to use their financial, technological and other resources to support access to potable water and sanitation for their own inhabitants and to help developing countries to do the same.
3. It approves of the decision of the UN Human Rights Council to appoint an expert to study the issues surrounding the right of people to water and sanitation, as a part of the UN Millennium Goals (this is called the “Geneva Process”).
Bolivia’s delegate, Pablo Solon, pointed out that the right to water is mentioned in a number of UN documents including the Convention on Elimination on all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. As the General Assembly’s summary of Bolivia’s comments expresses it: “Each year, more than 3.5 million people died from diseases spread by contaminated water” which kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Further, “a lack of sanitation affected 2.6 billion people or 40 percent of global population”.
Although no countries voted against this resolution, 41 abstained, including wealthy countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada, as well as some African countries such as Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Tanzania and Zambia. So did former socialist countries such as Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and the Ukraine. Other countries abstaining included Japan, Greece, Israel and Turkey.
All the Latin American countries voted in favor of the resolution. Some wealthy European countries did so also, including Germany and France. The largest countries in the world by population other than the United States and Japan all voted in favor: China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Nigeria and Mexico. The countries voting “yes” represent well over the majority of the world’s population.
Abstaining countries, including the United States, explained their vote on the basis of disappointment that the General Assembly did not get a unanimous vote by consensus (which would have weakened the resolution), and that the Geneva Process, and the work of the “Independent Expert” appointed by the Human Rights Council was not allowed to finish before taking action (which would have prolonged the process). The vote might undermine the work of the Human Rights Council, the U.S. delegate suggested. The U.S. questioned whether a “right to water and sanitation” exists in international law. However, the German delegate, who voted “yes,” felt that the resolution complements and enhances the work of the Independent Expert.
Governments sponsoring the resolution suspect that the wealthier countries fear that declaring access to water to be a basic human right will undermine privatization and also put the wealthy countries under pressure to waste less and help poorer countries more.
An official summary of the discussion can be read on the UN General Assembly website.
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