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African Human Rights Law Journal

On-line version ISSN 1996-2096
Print version ISSN 1609-073X

Afr. hum. rights law j. vol.11 n.2 Pretoria  2011

 

The human right to water in the corpus and jurisprudence of the African human rights system

 

 

Takele Soboka Bulto

Australian Research Council Laureate Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for International Governance and Justice, School of Regulation, Justice and Diplomacy, Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet), Australian National University

 

 


SUMMARY

The effects of the absence of an explicit and comprehensive protection of the human right to water in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights have been somewhat mitigated by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights' purposive approach to the interpretation of other guarantees of the African Charter in a manner that envelopes the right to water. The African Commission grounded the legal basis of the right in provisions guaranteeing the right to health, the right to a healthy environment and the right to dignity. Yet, the Commission has failed to fully explain the normative status and content of the right. There also remains doubt as to whether the right is an autonomous entitlement per se or is an auxiliary guarantee that is used to ensure the realisation of other rights of the Charter. Besides, the legal basis of the right is rendered diffuse as the African Commission has located it in differing rights on a case by case basis. This has left the right to water on shifting and amorphous legal bases and entailed normative problems for the right holders as well as duty bearers. The article argues that the Commission has grounded the right on a narrowly-defined legal basis. It also contends that the Commission should follow the approach of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' General Comment 15 (2002), which declared an autonomous right to water and defined its normative content and related states' obligations.


 

 

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* LLB (Addis Ababa), LLM (Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa) (Pretoria), MA (Addis Ababa), PhD (Melbourne); tsoboka@yahoo.com. I am grateful to the participants at the conference 'Thirty years of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights: Looking forward while looking back' organised by the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, 11 July 2011, where an earlier version of this article was presented, for their comments. I am also grateful to Prof Hilary Charlesworth and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of the article.
1 Prayer of Ezeulu (Ulu's chief priest) in C Achebe Arrow of God (1964) 95.         [ Links ]
2 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, adopted 27 June 1981; entered into force 21 October 1986, reproduced in C Heyns & M Killander (eds) Compendium of key human rights documents of the African Union (2010) 29.         [ Links ]
3 TS Bulto 'The utility of cross-cutting rights in enhancing justiciability of socioeconomic rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights' (2010) 29 The University of Tasmania Law Review 142;         [ Links ] C Heyns 'Civil and political rights in the African Charter' in M Evans & R Murray (eds) The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights: The system in practice, 1986-2000 (2002) 137;         [ Links ] CA Odinkalu 'Analysis of paralysis or paralysis by analysis? Implementing economic, social, and cultural rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights' (2001) 23 Human Rights Quarterly 327.         [ Links ]
4 See, eg, 'the right to work under equitable and satisfactory conditions' (art 15); 'the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health' (art 16); and 'the right to education' (art 17).
5 See Bulto (n 3 above) 143.
6 C Heyns 'The African regional human rights system: The African Charter' (2004) 108 Penn State Law Review 679 690.         [ Links ]
7 In 2009, the African Commission had drafted and circulated for comment a 'Draft Principles and Guidelines on the Implementation of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights' which contained a specific section on the 'right to water and sanitation'. The draft guidelines devoted paras 71-75 to the analysis of the legal basis and normative content of the right to water and sanitation. However, at the date of writing, the final version has not been made public. Thus, as the analysis of a draft document would not add much value to the debate, it is not discussed here.
8 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, adopted on 15 September 1968, entered into force on 16 June 1969. According to the publicly available data on the website of the AU, as at 30 August 2011, the African Nature Convention was ratified or acceded to by 30 of the 53 member states of the AU. See status of ratifications http://au.int/en/sites/default/files/Nature_and_Natu-ral_Resources.pdf (accessed 20 June 2011).
9 SC McCaffrey 'The basic right to water' in EB Weiss et al (eds) Fresh water and international economic law (2005) 93 94.         [ Links ]
10 M Craven 'Some thoughts on the emergent right to water' in E Riedel & P Rothen (eds) The human right to water (2006) 37 39.         [ Links ]
11 A qualified recognition of the human right to water has been made in other regional treaties, but the normative status of the right remains auxiliary to other related but more explicit rights. See TS Bulto 'Rights, wrongs and the river between: Extraterritorial application of the human right to water in Africa' unpublished PhD thesis, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, 2011 (on file with author).         [ Links ]
12 SC McCaffrey The law of international watercourses: Non-navigational uses (2001) 3.         [ Links ]
13 See the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2009 46.         [ Links ]
14 UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2009 (n 13 above) 45-46.
15 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, adopted 11 July 1990, entered into force 29 November 1999, reproduced in C Heyns & M Killander (eds) Compendium of key human rights documents of the African Union (2010) 77.         [ Links ]
16 Art 14(2)(c) African Children's Charter.
17 Adopted 13 September 2000, entered into force 25 November 2005, reprinted in C Heyns & M Killander (eds) Compendium of key human rights documents of the African Union (2010) 61.         [ Links ]
18 Art 15(a) African Women's Protocol.
19 Free Legal Assistance Group and Others v Zaire (2000) AHRLR 74 (ACHPR 1995) para 47.
20 See Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) & Another v Nigeria (SERAC case) (2001) AHRLR 60 (ACHPR 2001) paras 49, 50-54, 57 & 66.
21 Sudan Human Rights Organisation & Another v Sudan (2009) AHRLR 153 (ACHPR 2009) (Sudan) para 207.
22 Sudan (n 21 above) para 212.
23 Sudan (n 21 above) para 126.
24 Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa v Angola (2008) AHRLR 43 (ACHPR 2008) para 51.
25 See 'Statement from seminar on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights in the African Charter' adopted in Pretoria, 13-17 September 2004 (2005) 5 African Human Rights Law Journal (182 186 para 7.
26 A Cahill '"The human right to water - A right of unique status": The legal status and normative content of the right to water' (2005) 9 International Journal of Human Rights 389 394.         [ Links ]
27 As above.
28 A Cahill 'Protecting rights in the face of scarcity: The right to water' in M Gibney & S Skogly (eds) Universal human rights and extraterritorial obligations (2010) 194.         [ Links ]
29 TS Bulto 'The emergence of the human right to water in international human rights law: Invention or discovery?' (2011) 2 Melbourne Journal of International Law (forthcoming).         [ Links ]
30 As above.
31 See A Hardberger 'Whose job is it anyway?:Governmental obligations created by the human right to water' (2006) 41 Texas International Law Journal 533 535.         [ Links ]
32 Cahill (n 26 above) 394.
33 For an analysis of the minimum core of the human right to water, see section 4 below.
34 See n 63 below and accompanying text.
35 D Shelton 'Decision regarding Communication 155/96 (Social and Economic Rights Action Centre/Centre for Economic and Social Rights v Nigeria)' (2002) 96 American journal of International Law 937 941.         [ Links ]
36 SERAC case (n 20 above) paras 64-65.
37 SERAC case (n 20 above) para 60.
38 Heyns (n 6 above) 69; GJ Naldi 'Limitation of rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights: The contribution of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights' (2001) 17 South African journal on Human Rights 109 117.         [ Links ]
39 Preamble, para 11 African Charter.
40 Art 45(1)(b) African Charter.
41 See Bulto (n 29 above).
42 Abuja Declaration adopted at First Africa-South America Summit, 26-30 November 2006 (Abuja, Nigeria) para 18 http://www2.mre.gov.br/deaf/asa/declaration%20of%20the%20first%20-%20(english).pdf (accessed 23 June 2011).         [ Links ]
43 See General Assembly Adopts Resolution Recognising Access to Clean Water, Sanitation 64th General Assembly Plenary 108th Meeting (AM)) (General Assembly GA/10967) 28 July 2010.
44 For a South African example, see A Kok & M Langford 'The right to water' in D Brand & C Heyns (eds) Socio-economic rights in South Africa (2005) 191 197-198.         [ Links ]
45 This has been the case in South Africa and Botswana. See Lindiwe Mazibuko & Others v City of Johannesburg & Others Case CCT 39/09 [2009] ZACC 28; See also Matsipane Mosetlhanyane & Others v The Attorney-General of Botswana Court of Appeal, CALB-074-10 (unreported).
46 African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Information Sheet 4 http://www.achpr.org/ACHPR_inf._sheet_No.4.doc (accessed 30 August 2011).         [ Links ]
47 See generally A Roberts 'Comparative international law? The role of national courts in creating and enforcing international law' (2011) 60 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 57.         [ Links ]
48 S Lyster International wildlife law: An analysis of international treaties concerned with the conservation of wildlife (1985) 115.         [ Links ] See also M Prieur 'Protection of the environment' in M Bedjaoui (ed) International law: Achievemnts and prospects (1991) 1017 1035.         [ Links ]
49 M van der Linde 'A review of the African Convention on Nature and Natural Resources' (2002) 2 African Human Rights Law journal 33 35.         [ Links ]
50 Lyster (n 48 above) 115. A study revealed that no less than 30 constitutions of the then 54 states of the continent enshrine the right to environment, and it is within the framework of this right that the human right to water is usually mentioned in Africa. See C Heyns & W Kaguongo 'Constitutional human rights law in Africa' (2006) 22 South African journal on Human Rights 673 707.         [ Links ]
51 See D Hu Water rights: An international and comparative study (2006) 97.         [ Links ]
52 Art V(1) (my emphasis).
53 See Preamble, para 10 African Charter (my emphasis).
54 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (revised Nature Convention), adopted in Maputo, Mozambique, on 11 July 2003. It enters into force 30 days after the deposit of the 15th instrument of ratification in accordance with its art 38. As at 12 January 2008, the Convention has been ratified or acceded to by eight states and will need a further seven more to come into operation. See Status of Ratifications http://www.africa-union.org/root/au/Documents/Treaties/List/Revised%20Convention%20on%20Nature%20and%20Natural%20 Resources.pdf (accessed 23 May 2011).         [ Links ]
55 As regards the human right to water, the content of relevant provisions remain intact in the revised Nature Convention. For a detailed discussion of the revised version of the Convention and changes introduced thereby, see Van der Linde (n 49 above) 49-56.
56 See para 12. For an analysis of the vital contribution of the Rio and Stockholm Declarations and of Agenda 21, see Bulto (n 29 above).
57 As Van der Linde commented, the substantive provisions of the 1968 Nature Convention are not exactly in line with the Rio instruments and other contemporary multilateral treaties and subsequent developments on the subject. See Van der Linde (n 49 above) 43.
58 See n 54 above and accompanying text.
59 Under art 30 of the African Charter, the African Commission is entrusted with the duty 'to promote human and peoples' rights and ensure their protection in Africa'.
60 Art 60 African Charter.
61 GW Mugwanya Human rights in Africa: Enhancing human rights through the African regional human rights system (2003) 190.         [ Links ]
62 Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa v Angola (n 24 above) para 78.
63 It has been rightly asserted that the African Commission would use only those practices and precedents which are in line with the letter and the spirit of the African Charter, and the duty to draw inspiration from non-African legal sources does not necessarily imply, perhaps obviously, a wholesale grafting of the latter in the interpretation of the Charter. However, when the Charter is silent on certain aspects or all of a right, the Commission would borrow the principles applied at the level of other regional human rights jurisdictions and the UN bodies. See Odinkalu (n 3 above) 327 352-354.
64 See Heyns (n 6 above) 688-689; F Ouguergouz The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights: A comprehensive agenda for human dignity and sustainable democracy in Africa (2003) 567-568.         [ Links ]
65 SERAC case (n 20 above) para 63.
66 As above.
67 HG Schermers & DF Waelbroeck Judicial protection in the European Union (2001) 21.         [ Links ]
68 International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, adopted 16 December 1966; entered into force 3 January 1976.
69 See ESCR Committee, General Comment 15: Substantive issues arising in the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted 11-29 November 2002 para 3.
70 As above.
71 As above.
72 Bulto (n 3 above) 157-158.
73 It was declared as follows: 'All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.' See Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights on 25 June 1993 (A/CONF 157/23) para 5.
74 As above.
75 E Riedel 'The human right to water and General Comment No 15 of the CESCR' in Riedel & Rothen (n 10 above) 19 25.
76 ESCR Committee Conclusions and Recommendations: Cameroon, UN Doc E/C 12/1/Add 40 (1999) paras 22 & 40.         [ Links ]
77 ESCR Committee Conclusions and Recommendations: Russian Federation, UNDoc E/C 12/1/Add 13 (1999) para 25.         [ Links ] See also para 38.
78 CESCR Conclusions and Recommendations: Israel, UN Doc E/C 12/1/Add 27 (1999) paras 10, 24, 26 & 28.         [ Links ]
79 M Langford & JA King 'Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' in M Langford (ed) Social rights jurisprudence: Emerging trends in international and comparative law (2008) 477 509-514.         [ Links ]
80 TS Bulto 'Beyond the promises: Resuscitating the state reporting procedure under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights' (2006) 12 Buffalo Human Rights Law Review 57.         [ Links ]
81 Generally, the 'main teeth [of the reporting procedure] - the mobilisation of shame -have been too weak a threat to ensure compliance'; see Bulto (n 3 above) 151-152.
82 Until and unless the Optional Protocol to ICESCR comes into force, which provides for a complaints procedure, the ESCR Committee's main tool of supervision will continue to be entirely dependent upon the non-adversarial state reporting procedure. See Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by General Assembly Resolution A/RES/63/117 on 10 December 2008 (not yet in force).
83 See Bulto (n 29 above).
84 See Abuja Declaration (n 42 above).
85 See UN General Assembly Resolution (n 43 above).
86 This occurred in the framework of the UN General Assembly Resolution that recognised water as a human right and which was passed with a positive vote of 122 states, while it saw as many as 41 states abstaining, in the belief that they did not owe a legal obligation to ensure the right towards their residents. See General Assembly Adopts Resolution Recognising Access to Clean Water, Sanitation (n 43 above).
87 In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the rivers of the earth, including the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, originate from the mythical Mount Meru - the dwelling place of the gods - at the centre of the universe. In early Christian tradition, the waters of earth originate in the fountains of the Garden of Eden, which divide into the world's great streams such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. Similarly, in the Koran, every living thing is made from water and next to human kind it is the most precious creation. See PH Gleick 'An introduction to global fresh water issues' in PH Gleick (ed) Water in crisis: A guide to the world's fresh water resources (1993) 3; M Falkenmark, quoted in A Swain Managing water conflict: Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2004) 1.
88 S Postel The last oasis: Facing water scarcity (1992) 21-22.
89 Riedel (n 75 above) 19-20. See also AP Elhance Hydropolitics in the Third World: Conflict and cooperation in international river basins (1999) 8.
90 Riedel (n 75 above) 20.
91 Riedel (n 75 above) 26.
92 It is argued that such a minimalist approach, wherein the minimum core is explicated as an immediate guarantee as a starting point of the journey towards progressive and (eventually) full realisation of a given right, implies that maximum human rights gains can be achieved through temporarily minimising goals. Accordingly, Young argues that the minimum core approach 'trades rights-inflation for rights-ambition, channelling the attention of advocates towards the severest cases of material deprivation and treating these as violations by states towards their own citizens or even to those outside their territorial reach'. See KG Young 'The minimum core of economic and social rights: A concept in search of content' (2008) 33 Yale Journal of International Law 113 114.
93 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) paras 2, 6 & 12.
94 This is in line with other global and regional treaties as well as expert opinions. See Protocol on Shared Watercourse System in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Region, adopted on 23 August 1995, entered into force on 29 September 1998; ILC 'Draft articles on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses and commentaries thereto and resolution on trans-boundary confined ground water' (1994) 2 Yearbook of the International Law Commission 89 110; ILA 'The Berlin (Revised Helsinki) Rules' International Law Association (adopted at the Berlin Conference) 2004 12. See also D Shelton 'Equity' in J Brunnee & EHD Bodansky (eds) The Oxford handbook of international environmental law (2007) 639 648-649; SC McCaffrey The law of international watercourses (2007) 371; P Beaumont 'The 1997 UN Convention on the law of non-navigational uses of international watercourses: Its strengths and weaknesses from a water management perspective and the need for new workable guidelines' (2000) 16 Water Resources Development 475 483-484.
95 See ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 6.
96 AK Biswas 'Water as a human right in the MENA region: Challenges and opportunities' (2007) 23 International Journal of Water Resources Development 209 219-221.
97 Biswas (n 96 above) 219-220.
98 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 6.
99 'Preliminary Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler' (United Nations General Assembly (A/56/210) 2001) paras 58-71; 'Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, in Accordance with Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2002/25' (United Nations Economic and Social Council (E/CN.4/2003/54,10 January 2003) 2003) paras 44-51.
100 On the necessity of treating the human right to water differently from the right to food, see NAF Popovic 'In pursuit of environmental human rights: commentary on the Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment' (1996) 27 Columbia Human Rights Law Review 487 526-527.
101 The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses; adopted 21 May 1997, not yet in force. See General Assembly Resolution 51/229, annex, Official Records of the General Assembly, 51st session, Supplement 49 (A/51/49).
102 ILC 'Draft Articles on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses and commentaries thereto and resolution on transboundary confined ground water' (1994) 2 Yearbook of the International Law Commission 89 110.
103 ILA 'The Berlin (Revised Helsinki) Rules' International Law Association (adopted at the Berlin Conference) 2004 12.
104 As above.
105 As above.
106 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 2.
107 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 12(a).
108 As above.
109 As above.
110 The ESCR Committee stated that '[t]he adequacy of water should not be interpreted narrowly, by mere reference to volumetric quantities and technologies'. See ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 11.
111 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 12(b).
112 As above.
113 Kok & Langford (n 44 above) 191 199.
114 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 12(c).
115 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 12(c)(i).
116 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 12(c)(ii).
117 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 25.
118 ESCR Committee General Comment 15 (n 69 above) para 12(c)(iv).

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