The United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared that the right to water and sanitation is to be recognised as legally binding.
In a historic move, the Committee affirmed by consensus that the right is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, which is contained in several international human rights treaties.
While experts working with the UN human rights system have long acknowledged this, it was the first time that the Human Rights Council has declared itself on the issue.
According to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Independent Expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, "this means that for the UN, the right to water and sanitation, is contained in existing human rights treaties and is therefore legally binding".
She added that "this landmark decision has the potential to change the lives of the billions of human beings who still lack access to water and sanitation."
On 28 July 2010, the General Assembly took a first critical step by recognising this fundamental right. However, that resolution did not specify that the right entailed legally binding obligations.
The Human Rights Council – the main UN body competent in the area of human rights – in a resolution tabled by the Governments of Germany and Spain, with support from dozens of countries, has closed this gap by clarifying the foundation for recognition of the right and the legal standards which apply.
"I wholeheartedly welcome this resolution from the Human Rights Council, which signals a global agreement that access to water and sanitation are no longer matters of charity," Ms de Albuquerque said.
She continued: "The right to water and sanitation is a human right, equal to all other human rights, which implies that it is justiciable and enforceable. Hence from today onwards we have an even greater responsibility to concentrate all our efforts in the implementation and full realisation of this essential right."
Catarina de Albuquerque is a Portuguese lawyer currently working as a senior legal adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law (an independent institution under the Portuguese Prosecutor General's Office) in the area of human rights.
She has extensive experience in economic, social and cultural rights and holds a DES in international relations with a specialisation in international law from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. She was appointed as Independent Expert in September 2008 and took up her functions in November 2008.