Human rights experts warn GA: MDGs give 'fake measure of progress'


In her statement to the Third Committee of the General Assembly on 25 October, the Independent Expert on the right to water and sanitation, Ms Catarina de Albuquerque, advised States that their international human rights obligations required them to go well beyond the targets set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).


In her statement to the Third Committee of the General Assembly on 25 October, the Independent Expert on the right to water and sanitation, Ms Catarina de Albuquerque, advised States that their international human rights obligations required them to go well beyond the targets set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Although the Independent Expert gave due recognition to the contribution the MDGs had made to the realisation of human rights in many parts of the world, she stressed that the MDGs alone ‘were not enough’ to achieve the goal of universal enjoyment of human rights. She warned that if States failed to redesign their approach to the MDGs so that they prioritised the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, existing inequalities would be exacerbated, and millions of people would still not enjoy the basic right of access to clean water in 2015.

These messages were echoed by the Independent Expert on minority issues, Ms Gay McDougall, at an informal event on 22 October that was organised by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In a blunt address, Ms McDougall stated that the MDGs would not be sustainable if States did not set out to address the rights of minorities in a targeted way. In her view, one of the greatest problems with the MDGs was that States were not required to address discrimination and inequality in their MDG policies. This often led to a situation where a State could appear to be meeting MDG targets, but their actions were also leaving minorities worse off.

Ms McDougall warned that States’ reliance on aggregated data was at the heart of the problem. Few States were bothering to investigate how and why minorities were adversely affected by their MDG policies, and almost none were including this information in their MDG reports.  Ms de Albuquerque was also on the panel and added that the data problems were not unique to States. UN agencies like UNICEF and the World Health Organisation were also collecting data without adequately assessing the quality of services or what factors affected people’s access, such as affordability.  Both Independent Experts agreed that the poorest and most marginalised groups should be involved in decision-making processes so that their needs could be better understood and addressed. Also, States needed to take up their responsibility to collect socio-economic data and disaggregated data that would reveal inequalities and enable more targeted responses.

The central message from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, during the panel discussion was that the special procedures of the Human Rights Council should play a critical role monitoring the implementation of States’ MDG policy efforts. They could then advise States on how to improve and more effectively target their MDG policies so that progress was accelerated. Although States did not assign this role to special procedures in the MDG Summit Outcome Document (the Outcome Document), the High Commissioner argued the expertise of the special procedures would benefit developed and developing States alike. The High Commissioner's remarks also belied her opinion that the MDG Summit Outcome Document did not adequately incorporate key human rights principles. She emphasised the need for States to ground their MDG policies in the principles of non-discrimination, meaningful participation and accountability to ensure universal access to basic social services could be achieved. She also appealed to States to explicitly include human rights in whatever global compact might be developed post-2015.

Statement by the Independent Expert on the right to water and sanitation

Ms de Albuquerque began her address to the Third Committee by congratulating the General Assembly on its recent adoption of a resolution that recognised the human right to water and sanitation. She also welcomed the subsequent Human Rights Council resolution that recognised that States are under a legal obligation to ensure, in a progressive manner and within available resources, that everyone has access to water and sanitation. Describing these steps as a ‘breakthrough’, she also interpreted them as a signal that the international community had the political will to address the’ global water and sanitation crisis’. Nonetheless, States needed to face the enormous challenge to implement these rights and turn them into a reality for all people.

Turning to the focus of her report to the General Assembly (A/65/254), Ms de Albuquerque emphasised how the right to water and sanitation must inform States’ design and implementation of their MDG policies. To illustrate this point, she referred to a recent country mission where she had visited a man’s home near the capital city.(1) Although his kitchen tap water was unfit for consumption, it was being counted towards that country’s MDG target. The State was not required to consider the quality of the water, only to count each instance where water was provided via an improved water source, such as a tap. In her view, this example highlighted how governments needed to fundamentally redesign their approach to the MDGs so that they were also advancing the goal of universal enjoyment of human rights.

Although the MDG Summit Outcome Document ‘generally recognises that human rights are essential for achieving the MDGs’, Ms de Albuquerque was critical of the missed opportunity to align MDG targets and indicators with human rights standards. In particular, she was concerned that the MDGs will continue to ‘mask continuing inequalities, inadequate access and exclusion’. She noted that the MDGs’ focus on averages gave States an incentive to concentrate on meeting the needs of people who were ‘relatively easy to reach’. However, she warned it was ‘unacceptable’ for any State to leave particular groups behind, including people living in slums, the disabled or small ethnic minorities. To avoid this problem, States needed to disaggregate their data to assess discrimination on multiple grounds, including race, ethnic origin, sex, religious belief, and wealth. They also needed to identify groups that faced discrimination and monitor patterns in their access in order to target systemic exclusion.

The Independent Expert also emphasised the limited scale and ambition of the MDGs, as compared to international human rights obligations. She pointed out that even if MDG target 7c was met and there was a 50 percent improvement in access to water and sanitation by 2015, an estimated 672 million people would still be without access to water and 1.7 billion people without access to sanitation. In contrast, there were no such ‘arbitrary benchmarks’ for the realisation of the human right to water and sanitation. International human rights law required that States ultimately aim for universal coverage within time frames tailored to the country situation. Her report highlighted a few ‘notable’ States that had set targets for access to water and sanitation that are higher than the MDG targets: Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Sri Lanka.

Two other areas where the Independent Expert encouraged States to go beyond the requirements of the MDGs were participation and accountability. A human rights-based approach to the MDGs required States to involve all affected people in the decision-making process, including policy design, implementation and review. Rather than just monitoring and reporting on their policies to achieve the MDGs, the Independent Expert encouraged States to involve human rights monitoring institutions and expert bodies to assess whether their MDG actions were in line with their human rights obligations. By this, she meant using national court systems and national human rights institutions, as well as the UN treaty bodies and special procedures to enhance States' accountability. These were recommendations that NGOs had put forward for inclusion in the Summit Outcome Document, which States did not incorporate.

Overview of interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert

Less than ten States engaged in a discussion with the Independent Expert. In response to questions from Germany and Norway Ms de Albuquerque flagged a number of new projects for the coming year. These included work on: national action plans for the right to water and sanitation; development of indicators and benchmarks relating to access to drinking water and sanitation; and consideration of how the right to water and sanitation impacted on other human rights, such as the right to education, work, and to live free from violence.  In response to Switzerland’s question about the development of indicators, the Independent Expert noted that considerable work had already been done to elaborate a human rights-based approach to the right to health, and these indicators could be adapted to her mandate. Although it was expensive for States to adopt human rights criteria to measure the quality of water, Bangladesh had shown it could be done, and its experience could provide a useful model for others.

On a more controversial note, the UK again raised its objection to any recognition of a human right to water. In its view, the right was not sufficiently defined, leaving States unclear about the nature and extent of their obligations. Although the UK hoped the Independent Expert would further explore these issues, Ms de Albuquerque referred the UK to the definition she had developed over the last year. She added that definitional work being undertaken by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that would soon be finalised.

In response to the EU's question about how a human rights-based approach to the right to water would help those most in need, the Independent Expert responded that such an approach provided a more realistic and honest picture. In contrast, just looking at the MDGs sometimes presented a 'fake measure of progress'. Another question from the EU about sustainable solutions to the current water crisis prompted a stern rebuke to Western States for their consumption of 'luxury foods'. The Independent Expert pointed to the excessive quantities of water required by the agricultural industry as being the real problem, rather than the water needs of the average person, which were quite modest. 

The other States that posed questions were Algeria, Australia, Bolivia, Spain.

(1) During the MDG side event on 22 October 2010, Ms de Albuquerque recounted this same story and named Egypt as the country she had visited.

Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe. A boy collects water from an open pipe, Haiti.