Business and Human Rights and the Right to Water

By Gaughran, Audrey | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Business and Human Rights and the Right to Water


Gaughran, Audrey, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law


On September 30, 2010, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that the human right to water and sanitation is legally binding. The Council stated that the right to water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, which is recognized in several international treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In June 2011 the Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles outline how states and businesses should implement the UN "Protect, Respect and Remedy" Framework on Business and Human Rights, which aims at preventing and redressing business-related human rights abuses. The Framework comprises three principles: the state duty to protect in the context of corporate human rights abuses; the corporate responsibility to respect all human rights; and access to remedies for victims of abuses.

The corporate responsibility to respect all human rights is described as a "minimum standard" for business, but it is not a legal one. While providing valuable guidance to companies that are willing to take it on board, the Guiding Principles on the corporate responsibility to respect do not speak to those companies that are simply not interested in ensuring that their operations respect human rights, or those companies that have yet to engage with the issues at all. Unfortunately, these remain the majority. Therefore, when it comes to human rights, only an effective and faithful discharge by states of their legal duty to protect rights will have any significant impact.

Turning specifically to the human right to water, I note that business can have a significant impact on the right to water. This impact occurs in three principle contexts:

* where business is involved in the provision of water services

* where business is a user of water--and particularly where water is a limited resource and business is competing with other users

* where business activities that are unrelated to water per se have an impact on water sources (for example, where industry causes pollution of water systems).

My remarks will focus on the third context, in particular, one case: the Niger Delta, where, since 2008, Amnesty International has researched violations of economic, social, and cultural rights as a consequence of oil extraction.

The Niger Delta is one of the ten most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world and is home to some 31 million people. The Niger Delta is also the location of massive oil deposits, which have been extracted for decades by the government of Nigeria and by multinational oil companies. Oil has generated an estimated $600 billion since the 1960s. Despite this, the majority of the Niger Delta's population lives in poverty. They do not have adequate access to clean water. Some rely on boreholes, but many rely on the rivers and streams for water both for drinking and domestic use. In light of this, one of the most disturbing findings of Amnesty International's research was that the water system--the rivers, streams, and ponds--have for decades been the receiving bodies for oil spills and waste discharge, including waste water and dumped drilling waste. Rivers and creeks have also been subjected to dredging and canalization. The combined and cumulative impact of these practices by oil companies has significantly undermined the rights to water, food, and health.

Despite the widespread pollution, Amnesty International could not find any study that considered the implications of oil pollution in water that is used for drinking, bathing, and other domestic purposes. The information that is available comes directly from the communities, such as the people affected by the Ogbodo spill of 2001, when thousands of people lost access to their main source of drinking water after an oil spill, and children reported skin and eye problems after diving in the oil-contaminated river. …

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