Participation & Governance

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development: Human rights blocked at Rio+20

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At Rio+20, countries and world leaders are actively blocking references in the conference agreement to human rights. Despite all countries at the United Nations agreeing to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, attempts by countries to [bracket] the text, suggests that commitment to the realisation of these rights is different to the words of support given in principle. Youth Policy’s Alex Farrow tells us more…

Last week I attended an event in the UK organised byDEFRA,The British Youth Council,UNICEF UKand theScience Museumwith young people from around the UK and attended by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman.

The conference was about water - an issue at Rio+20 where the UK is currently blocking ‘the right to water’ from being included in the final text.The text currently reads:

[We [reaffirm / recognize] our commitments regarding the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation as essential for the full enjoyment of life] [mindful of that this does not encompass transboundary water issues, including bulk water trade, nor any mandatory allocation of international development assistance ].]

The [brackets] means that the sentence or words are disputed and not agreed. We cannot, as a world, even agree that safe drinking water is a human right.

According to unnamed officials at the Stakeholder Forum, the UK, through the EU, is blocking the right to water for fear of being sued by the travelling community in the UK and former colonies internationally to which we currently, or historically have, blocked the access to clean safe water for drinking and sanitation.

When I asked the Secretary of State about this issues in a panel discussion she defensively argued that internationally agreed principles and goals should mean different things in different contexts. Though in different words, her argument was that, for example, the right to water in the Horn of Africa (which is suffering severe drought) should mean something different in another country, such as the UK.

But at Rio, countries are also trying to remove references to the right to food and proper nutrition, the right to development and the right to a clean and healthy environment, which is essential to the realisation of fundamental human rights, remains weak in the text.

I firmly believe that our approach to negotiations should be pragmatic and realistic for the world we live in. All sections of society, be they public or private sectors, individuals or communities, developed or developing countries, must play their unique role in sustainable development and transitioning the world to one that protects the planet for future generations. But the fundamental starting position in international negotiations needs to be the recognition and support of human rights as the foundation on which our modern world is based. We cannot pick and chose which human rights are convenient. They are universal for a reason and should be accepted, promoted and respected by all.

While we know that human right abuses are widespread throughout the world, the United Nations has never been used before as an instrument in the regressing of progress on human rights before. Those democratic countries who are blocking a rights based approach to sustainable development must recognise their responsibility to champion human rights as there are many Governments in the world who will happily ignore them.

Alex is currently attending the Rio+20 conference in Brazil him at @alexjamesfarrow.