Rights and wrongs

I tell you, sometimes the UN really bugs me.

Some will claim that there are two types of people: those who see the world as it is, and those who see it as it ought to be. Happily, most people have both of these aspects within them at the same time. The latter trait gives people vision and the former trait provides ideas on how they might make their vision a reality.

I would expect an organization like the UN to always have an eye on the way things could be, with a foot firmly grounded in the way things are.

This brings me to WHO‘s document, The Right to Water. According to the document, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recognized water as a human right in 2002. They wrote,

the right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival.

While the statement itself is factual, it is given as the reason they deem water a human right. I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with this pronouncement. If water is a human right, and governments buy into this idea, things are going to get much worse, not better. There isn’t enough clean water to go around, so much of it has to be processed in some way before it can be used. Who pays? And if it’s freely provided, it will also be freely wasted, making it even more expensive and more scarce.

My vehement disagreement is exacerbated by sloppy wording within the document. There’s discussion of water being a human right, but sometimes access to water is cited as the issue. While the wording is similar, the difference is very significant. I would readily agree that everyone should have access to clean water. Removing the ‘access’ part of the statement puts the idea well into the ‘world that ought to be’ territory without any acknowledgment of the way the world is.

A section of the document called “Why does defining water as a human right make a difference?” explains the effects of making water a right. The very first bullet point is:

fresh water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity or service provided on a charitable basis

If this is true, why do we pay for water? If it’s a legal entitlement and not a commodity, those of us who pay for water deserve a hefty refund, thank you very much.

It’s amazing to me that some parts of the UN are taken seriously. I can just imagine someone saying, “Hey, everyone needs water. Let’s make it a human right,” and other agreeing, without anyone considering how the idea might suffer contact with the real world. It sounds like a good idea, but the smallest bit of thought about the consequences makes it clear that it will mean nothing at all.

The UN does have some clout on the world stage, but if they keep making pronouncements like this, they’ll squander what influence they currently enjoy.

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