Tag Archives: right to water

Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 2: The right to water

by Rhodri C. Williams

In 2006, when I was still relatively new to this part of the world, I started participating in a working group run by Swedish Water House on water as a human right. At the time, only four years had passed since the UN Committee on Social and Economic Rights had read a right to water into the right to an adequate standard of living in their groundbreaking General Comment 15. The UNDP had just released its 2006 human development report on the global water crisis, which pinned blame firmly on misguided policies, not absolute scarcity or technical issues. DFID had just officially notified the world that water was a human right. The wind was at our backs. But not the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

In effect, what I had assumed would be an exercise in enlightened Swedes lecturing the world on the importance of recognizing the right to water turned out to be an exercise in enlightened Swedes lecturing official Sweden on this point. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) had recognized the right to water, nor did they evince much enthusiasm. After a year of prodding, a pleasant but slightly beleaguered Foreign Ministry official attended an October 2007  seminar and conceded that “the government recognizes the right to water as emanating from the right to an adequate standard of living in article 11, paragraph 1 of the ICESCR” (seminar report, 12).

However, the lawyers had clearly been at work, and the “emanating” formulation (as opposed to recognition as a “free-standing right”) became a means of maintaining opposition to normative developments then underway in Geneva:

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Sweden versus social and economic human rights … what gives?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I think it is fair to say that most of us non-Swedes view Sweden as an incredibly seductive place. Mind you, I refer not so much to sheer pulchritude (though any readers out there who think Swedes are past the beauty myth should check out this nonsense) as to social policy. In American terms, right-wingers view Sweden’s allure as dangerous and misleading, with wretched proletarian drones somehow managing to masquerade, year after year, as happy, well adjusted social democrats. Left-wingers, by contrast, drool unabashedly.

And what’s not to like, one might ask? Look around and you will observe a generous and well-funded welfare state balanced by privatization in all kinds of unexpected places, impressive gender equality, rule of law, one of Europe’s more frivolous right wing populist parties, the ability to power through global economic meltdowns without even getting your ponytail mussed, and social capital to burn.

Sweden also occupies a special place in the human rights pantheon. If Americans assume that their human rights record is beyond question because they wrote them, Swedes do the same because they embody them. Where other countries fuss endlessly over balancing public interests and individual rights, Swedes often seem to assume they are the same thing.  Swedes love human rights. At least, fifty percent of human rights. Curiously, in a country shaped by the labor movement, infatuated with solidarity and social justice, and punching well above its weight in development cooperation, economic and social rights seem not to be a polite topic for dinnertime conversation.

This realization has dawned on me gradually during my time here, but I was recently given a reminder by a proposal related to ‘grading’ countries on their human rights performance published in a leading Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) by a leading Swedish jurist (and former Bosnia colleague, Krister Thelin). My proposal to respond directly to Krister’s article was turned down by the DN editors on the unreassuring grounds of “insufficient space, among other things” (it seems that I have yet to stamp my authority on the world of Swedish punditry). Happily though, this gives me the opportunity to finally blog a bit more on local issues of relevance to TN.

All this by way of announcing two forthcoming posts on ‘Sweden versus social and economic human rights’, the first responding to Krister’s grading system proposal and the second focusing on Sweden’s approach to the right to water. Both are indicative of an apparent unease with this category of rights in a country that has absolutely nothing to lose from embracing them.  Sweden probably outperforms most other countries in the world in implementing these rights in practice, but eschews them in principle. Is it a question of local political culture, a hangover from the Cold War, both or neither? And what broader significance might it have in a world where social and economic justice claims remain both burningly relevant and persistently controversial? All this and more to come. Hej så länge!

Part 1: Benchmarking human rights (o9 September 2011)

Part 2: The right to water (15 September 2011)

Week in links – week 15/2011

Apologies to TN readers for having been a little incommunicado in the last days! Have been too busy to even chase down some interesting guest postings that are in the works, let alone write, but I hope to pick up the pace again in the next weeks. Lots of interesting items out there in the HLP-related world as usual:

First, on womens’ land rights, the Landesa blog includes an interesting piece on the recent ‘revolution’ in Bengal that resulted from the inclusion of an extra line allowing registration of land grants in both spouses’ names. Earlier this month, the fourth Women’s Land Link Africa (WLLA) Land Academy was held in Arusha, Tanzania, with participants from fourteen African countries.

The Financial Times reported on the land issues now awaiting the attention of Ivory Coast’s new President Alassane Ouattara, now that the technicalities of the succession appear to have been resolved. As anticipated in Barbara McCallin’s earlier guest-post and report, both the technical and political obstacles will be sobering:

Some immigrants – many of whom have now lived in Ivory Coast for decades – have been thrown off their farms and may now want to return. This is a delicate issue for Mr Ouattara, and risks further alienating Mr Gbagbo’s supporters – those who already see the president-elect as a foreigner who favours immigrants. “He can’t be seen as someone who wants to take away the land from the indigenous groups,” the analyst added.

As documented in the report on a recent seminar held by Swedish Water House, the Swedish Government has come around to the notion of a human right to water after a surprising amount of circumspection (compared to peers such as the UK, which took the plunge in 2006). While Sweden is undoubtedly a progressive country, it has for various reasons been historically reluctant to consistently express this outlook in a vocabulary of rights. The official justification given for the delay in this case is somewhat lame – if everyone waited for the results of contradictory and bumbling UN processes instead of pushing them along, who knows where we would be right now. But the apparently enthusiastic embrace of this right by a key player in the water business is more than welcome.

The ICJ case pitting Georgia against Russia that I blogged on earlier here has been dismissed without examination on the merits. For a good analysis of the reception of this news in Georgia and Russia, see this recent piece in Opinio Juris. Presumably, the rather innovative interim measures previously ordered by the Court to protect the property of displaced persons have lapsed as well. More jaded readers may be tempted to wonder whether anyone on the ground will notice… (UPDATE – a bit more analysis by Marko Milovanovic at EJILtalk)

Finally, as if you didn’t have enough to peruse, the Forum for International, Criminal and Humanitarian Law has published a 440 page door-stopper of a book on ‘Distributive Justice in Transitions‘. It focuses heavily on land issues, with lots of case-studies on Colombia, and looks to be a fascinating read.

Available land? The Economist special report on global food security

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick note to draw readers’ attention to a special report on what it will take to feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050 in this week’s Economist. Like much of the material in the Economist, the special reports are only available for a limited time, but can be downloaded in .pdf format while they last. Intriguingly, next week’s edition is slated to include a special report on ‘property’.

Turning to the current report on food security, land is discussed as a constraint on the increases in yield needed to keep up with global population growth, but is accorded less significance than other variables, notably water and fertilizer. One of the most interesting conclusions of the report is that genetic modification of both livestock and plants may facilitate a second green revolution that might for the first time allow the stabilizing population of the world to eat properly, climate change notwithstanding. One of the most worrisome conclusions is that achieving these types of technological leaps may be the only way to avoid catastrophe.

On the issue of land, the special report asserts that intensive agriculture along Brazilian lines, together with extensive use of fertilizer and genetically modified crops, will be necessary evils. The article notes that clearing of new land would be counterproductive, in part due to the cost of losing further forests, and in part because little readily arable land remains uncleared. However, the report cites World Bank findings indicating that cultivated land could be increased by one-third worldwide by bringing intensive methods to areas with fewer than 25 people per hectare currently living on them.

The World Bank is also cited as noting that up to an eighth of such ‘available’ land has already been put to cultivation by foreign investors in only three years since the ‘global land rush’ phenomenon began in earnest. While this is taken as evidence that the remaining seven eights can quickly be put to the service of a hungry world, it also raises some questions that are not fully addressed in the report. One of the foremost relates to the fate of the twenty five or fewer people currently occupying each of the half-billion hectares in question.

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The week in links – week 41/2010

This week’s food for thought:

– Continuing the nervous drumbeat on the upcoming Southern Sudan referendum, here is Open Democracy on the apparent new delay to the Abyei referendum, and a good news-then-bad news analysis by Phillipe De Pontet at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

– The International Law Observer notes that the Human Right to Water and Sanitation is now official – a recent decision by the Human Rights Council brings the number of states that have gone on the record to 178.

– Meanwhile, the FAO Right to Food people are about to release a guideline on responsible land tenure management and the right to food (it is available now in Spanish).

– Lyric Thompson reports in Open Democracy on the whiff of UN politics behind the anticlimactic tenth birthday party in the UN Security Council for Resolution 1325.

– In case anyone forgot the link between land and identity, here is a comment in the Jerusalem Post on what the construction ban and its absence is seen to signify by some in the Middle East. In the meantime, the NYT reports on the resumption of construction plans in East Jerusalem, and Open Democracy has news of a possible response, with the Arab League apparently considering whether to “appeal directly to the UN to recognise the state of Palestine.”

– From the US, Paul Krugman reports on the ongoing fallout of the mortgage crisis and the fact that it now appears that the USA, one of the world’s great proponents of rule of law and the sanctity of property, is witnessing foreclosures by banks that are unable to actually document the mortgage agreements they are enforcing.

– And in the unremarked on but terrifying land violence category, IRIN reports on inter-clan skirmishes over land in northeastern Kenya that displaced 600 families.

– Finally, the ECFR has issued a new short comment and report on the ‘spectre of a multipolar Europe with a fairly provocative set of findings:

  • The post-Cold War order is unravelling. Rather than uniting under a single system, Europe’s big powers are moving apart. Tensions between them have made security systems dysfunctional: they failed to prevent war in Kosovo and Georgia, instability in Kyrgyzstan, disruption to Europe’s gas supplies, and solve frozen conflicts.
  • The EU has spent much of the last decade defending a European order that no longer functions. Russia and Turkey may complain more, but the EU has the most to lose from the current peaceful disorder.
  • A frustrated Turkey still wants to join the EU, but it is increasingly pursuing an independent foreign policy and looking for a larger role as a regional power. In the words of foreign minister Davutoglu, Turkey is now an ‘actor not an issue’. Its accession negotiations to the EU should be speeded up, and it must also be engaged as an important regional power.
  • Russia never accepted the post-Cold War order. Moscow is now strong enough to openly challenge it, but its Westpolitik strategy also means that it is open to engagement – that is why Dmitri Medvedev suggested a new European security treaty a couple of years ago.
  • Obama’s non-appearance at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was the latest sign that the US is no longer focused on Europe’s internal security. Washington has its hands full dealing with Afghanistan, Iran and China and is no longer a European power.