World Water Day is March 22. We recognize that water is essential to life. Indeed, the message from indigenous communities struggling to protect themselves and their lands in recent years is "Water is Life."
Startling facts and statistics
The UN states as many as 2.1 billion people have no safe water at home. And almost two-thirds of the world’s people have problems finding water in at least one month of the year. Of those who use unsafe water, some 80 percent live in rural areas. One in four school children don’t have drinking water at school, forcing them to resort to using unprotected sources or not drinking water at all. And if trends continue, an estimated 700 million people across the world could have to leave their homes by 2030 because of a lack of access to water, the UN stated.
Read "Laudato Si and Water." Maryknoll Lay Missioner Flavio Rocha writes from Brazil, where the poor quality of the water (due mainly to residential and industrial sewage contaminating rivers, lakes and nearby ocean waters) received international attention during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Rocha examines the lessons about water that Pope Francis offers in Laudato Si', the encyclical which is subtitled "On Care For Our Common Home."
Defending water and the environment has grown deadly
The United Nations Environment Program said recently, "the environment has become the new frontline for human rights defenders." Indigenous peoples who speak out in defense of their lands and their waterways, are being killed at an alarming rate. Latin America has seen the highest number of murders in recent years, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the global total in 2016. In Honduras, 128 defenders are estimated to have been murdered since 2010—the world’s worst rate.
A record number of human rights defenders were murdered during 2018. The Irish-based international NGO Front Line Defenders said in its annual report published in January that in addition to the deaths of 321 people in 27 countries, there was a notable move to frustrate human rights work on the part of governments.
"Many of the gains made by the human rights movement over the past two decades are increasingly under attack as the trend towards populist politics predicated on exclusionary nationalism and neo-liberal or protectionist policies continues to take hold. Elections which took place during the course of the year often gave platforms to xenophobic, racist and misogynist voices and visions for the future of their countries, while in some regions they were used as excuses for full-on crackdowns against [human rights defenders] HRDs who were systematically silenced.
"The international architecture of human rights institutions was also challenged in each of the regions. In June, the United States withdrew from the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. In September, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales took the extraordinary and extralegal step of denying UN-mandated commissioner Iván Velásquez re-entry to the country. Mr Velásquez is the Commissioner of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), set up in late 2006 to investigate corruption and impunity in the country. This followed the announcement by President Morales on 31 August that he would not renew the mandate of the Commission, despite specific campaign pledges in support of the Commission and its work. In October, the Minister of Foreign Affairs refused to renew the visas of 11 of CICIG’s members. On 18 December, the government issued an order for those 11 members to leave the country. In March, the government of the Philippines named Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, on a so-called ‘terrorist-list’ after she spoke out about the repression of farmers, indigenous peoples and HRDs. Reprisals for cooperating with UN mechanisms continued in the MENA region where an Egyptian TV host allied with President El-Sisi called for the killing of HRD Bahey el-Din Hassan on his television broadcast following a memo sent by seven Egyptian independent human rights groups, including Hassan’s, to the UN Secretary-General regarding the presidential elections in the country. Russia, meanwhile, signalled its intention to withdraw from the Council of Europe, whose raison d’etre is the promotion of human rights, following the suspension of its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly after its annexation of Crimea.
"These attacks on the global human rights infrastructure were buffeted by campaigns against individual HRDs and organisations at the national level by state and non-state actors. There is a well-evidenced link between defamatory attacks online and in pro-government media and an escalation to physical attacks on individuals and their families."...
UN member states are negotiating text for a UN binding treaty on business and human rights. If successful, the treaty could hold trans-national corportations legally responsible for the impacts of their operations worldwide and provide an avenue to justice for victims of business-related human rights abuses. A growing number of states across Latin America, Africa and Asia support the mandate led by Ecuador, while EU states have been reluctant to engage but have taken small steps in this direction. The United States is conspicuously absent, having voted against the resolution in the UN Human Rights Council, which established the mandate in 2014. The Trump administration has since withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council.
On February 6, a one-page document came out inviting member states to comment on the text of the treaty. The invitation might revive the momentum and participation of the past months. October 2018 saw 94 states and 400 civil society organizations participate in the fourth session of the UN intergovernmental working group tasked with developing the treaty. This high participation reflects the fact that, unlike in previous sessions, a first-ever full negotiating text — a “zero draft” treaty and a “zero draft” optional protocol — was finally on the table.
Human rights over trade
One component of the treaty is to ensure that human rights obligations override trade and investment rules. Under current rules, the opposite occurs when corporations sue governments for perceived loss of profit and unfair treatment. Companies can use the “investor state dispute settlement mechanism” in private investment courts located in such places as the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The judges are corporate lawyers who, when not presiding, defend parties in front of the same courts. Only companies can bring suits and there is no appeals process.
Considering the harmful impacts of profit-driven development on communities, the treaty will be a critical tool to provide a way for communities to seek justice from transnational corporations.
Photo: Woman carrying buckets of water in Laos by flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government, licensed in the creative commons 2.0.