A European Union moment for human rights

4 min read
Taslima Begum, a housewife from ward 8, demanded public toilets in her area, Paikgacha Municipality, Khulna, Bangladesh, 2014.
Image: WaterAid/ Habibul Haque

The European Union (EU)'s guidelines on human rights to water, sanitation and hygiene must be welcomed. But Louisa Gosling, Quality Programmes Manager at WaterAid UK, presents a new tool to help make these locally relevant.

The EU releases guidelines on economic and social rights

Is the Foreign Affairs Council signalling a hugely significant shift in its approach to human rights?

For the past two decades the European Union (EU)’s human rights focus has centered solely on civil and political rights. However, on Monday the EU adopted guidelines focusing for the first time on economic and social rights.

Does this signal renewed political momentum on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) at an EU level? If it does, then this is long overdue – water and sanitation were declared a human right in 2010 and as two separate human rights in 2015 – and hugely significant.

WASH is vital to development, but has been ignored

The importance of the EU/WASH agenda, in terms of development and cooperation programmes, has slipped in recent times. In seven years, the number of EU-supported national initiatives targeting this has fallen by 50%.

But WASH should be right at the top of development priorities – it underpins many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Lack of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene undermines efforts to improve health, education and financial security. It holds back lives, nations and the entire development agenda.

The guidelines must show the way for EU delegations, institutions and member states to implement development policies. At their core must be enabling local authorities in low-income countries, who deliver improvements in WASH services, to focus on accountability, better understanding and targeted investment.

Village women wash and take baths in a pond at Chalna Bazar, Bangladesh.
Village women wash and take baths in a pond at Chalna Bazar, Bangladesh.
Image: WaterAid/ Abir Abdullah

Inequalities in WASH access are still vast

In the EU, we have a strict regulatory framework for water and sanitation, which means our citizens can, in the most part, take the provision of clean water and good sanitation for granted. But for people living in countries with very poor access to water and sanitation services, it is a different picture.

Part of the reason there are nearly 2.3 billion people without access to adequate sanitation, and 844 million without access to clean water, is a lack of local accountability. This combines with poor understanding of where the duty lies to provide these services, and a lack of resources to act on that duty.

The guidelines lack detail – we have the answer

The new guidelines, while long on ambition, are short on detail. They may not provide enough practical guidance to officials at the lowest levels of local government, some of whom may be new to the topic of human rights in relation to WASH.

The good news is that there is a pragmatic tool aimed precisely at making the human rights to water and sanitation as operational as possible. At the European Development Days this week we are presenting 'Making Rights Real' – our project aiming to help local government officials in some of the poorest parts of the world to advance their communities using a human rights-based approach to improving WASH access.

The tool, already used across several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, helps local authorities to clearly understand their responsibility for ensuring universal access, while applying the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, sustainability, accountability, participation and access to information.

The challenges of getting water and sanitation to the poorest communities are immense. Making Rights Real helps government officers and communities to discuss how to overcome these challenges, in order to get water and sanitation to everyone. We need to collectively change our mindset to recognise that every day that someone lives without water and sanitation their human rights are being breached.

Making Rights Real is a partnership-building initiative and it is already working. In Ethiopia, it helped service providers collaborate with local government to strengthen community accountability procedures, in order to assess work being done. In India, local officials improved disability access to toilets after the tool helped them realise the scope of human rights.

We must use this moment

If this is indeed a significant shift in the EU's approach to human rights, we must welcome it and utilise it, and make sure the momentum leads to realisation of rights to WASH. At the heart of EU thinking must be a tangible commitment and not just words. Let's harness the power of the EU to ensure that no one is left behind. If we do not, inequalities will only deepen along lines of income, geography, disability, gender and social group.

This a moment for the EU, a moment when we can make huge strides towards ensuring that everyone, everywhere is able to enjoy these human rights. Moments like this don’t come often. Let’s use it.

Join us at European Development Days, booth 29, to learn more. Follow @EUWaterAid for details.

Louisa Gosling is Quality Programmes Manager at WaterAid UK. Follow her at @LouisaGosling1