The World Council of Churches has challenged Britain's refusal to recognise access to safe sanitation as a legally-binding human right, saying that the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the world that explicitly continue to reject such a principle.
"Billions of people all over the world have no or insufficient access to clean water and safe sanitation," the WCC's main governing body, its central committee, said in a statement on the "right to water and sanitation" issued on 22 February at the end of a seven-day meeting in Geneva.
The WCC noted that the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a "landmark resolution" in 2010 affirming that access to both water and sanitation is a human right. However, a few governments – with Britain and Canada among the most prominent – explicitly reject either the right to water or the right to sanitation, it said.
The WCC statement urged governments "to adopt sustainable policies that give particular attention to the rights of disadvantaged groups, communities and individuals, and that address the underlying structural reasons for discrimination in access to water and sanitation".
It said governments should incorporate the right to water and sanitation into national policies, making it enforceable at the national level.
"Those who suffer most from not having even the most basic access to clean drinking water are the poorest and other vulnerable groups, such as women, people with disabilities, or indigenous people," said Maike Gorsboth, coordinator of the Ecumenical Water Network, a WCC-linked campaign on water-related issues.
The WCC also warned against seeing water "simply as a commodity that may be sold and traded according to market principles". This "endangers access to and control over this life-giving gift of God for those who are economically, socially, or politically disadvantaged".
The WCC statement urged member churches and ecumenical organisations to undertake advocacy efforts for the implementation of the right of water at all levels, including through involvement in the Ecumenical Water Network.
Britain was the only country to disassociate itself from the Human Rights Council's September 2010 resolution on water and sanitation as a human right. The UK said it recognised the right to water as an element of the right to an adequate standard of living, but that there is no basis in international law for recognising a human right to sanitation.
Canada has resisted references both to the right to water and to the right to sanitation in resolutions of UN human rights bodies.
The WCC has 349 member churches, mostly Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox. WCC members in Britain include the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches.
Ecumenical Water Network: water.oikoumene.org
© Stephen Brown is a Geneva-based journalist and writer. At present he is reporting for Ekklesia on the World Council of Churches' central committee and related matters.