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The Usual Suspects: Abstaining the Water Vote

Clean public drinking water in the Democratic Republic of Congo, photo: Julien Harneis/flickr

The usual suspects never fail to disappoint. With 122 countries voting in favor and 41 abstaining, the UN General Assembly has recently declared clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right, a move hailed by water rights activists as a “big step in the right direction.” Although passing with an overwhelming majority, the vote’s abstentions are disconcerting, although, considering the culprits, not surprising.

The usual suspects—United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel—attempted to justify their abstentions through unconvincing procedural language. Substantively, they argued that declaring water as a human right has no sufficient legal basis in customary international law. Isn’t that the exact purpose of this declaration, to move in that direction? Before the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, most human rights now enshrined in treaty law was also not part of international law. Like the UDHR, the current water rights declaration has the power to fuel the onset of a normative and legal shift focusing on codifying the right to clean water and basic sanitation in enforceable treaty laws. The second argument, of a procedural in character, proposes that the vote would disrupt ongoing water rights negotiations at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. Why would the HRC—a 47-member body—be deemed more appropriate a forum than the more democratic and representative 192-member General Assembly? If anything, the current declaration can help guide and even compliment the negotiations in Geneva.

So why abstain from such a seemingly basic declaration? » More

The Welcome Demise of Cluster Munitions

How many legs lost? Photo: François Bouchet/flickr

Munitions that break apart and scatter over a wide territory have been used since World War II. But yesterday, 1 August 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) has finally become part of international Humanitarian Law. Following in the footsteps of the Mine Ban Treaty, the CCM disallows the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions.

The impetus for the treaty was widespread concern over the severe damage and risks to civilians from explosive weapons not only during, but also long after attacks. Cluster munitions (or cluster bombs) are indiscriminate weapons dropped from the air or deployed by ground-based delivery systems that often distribute hundreds of bomblets (or submunitions) that can cover an area the size of several football fields. On impact, many of the bomblets fail to explode – by design or flaw – and thereby remain a threat to lives and livelihoods many years after the conflict has ended. The most vulnerable, as usual, are the children, mistaking the deadly shrapnel for toys. » More

ISN Quiz: Latin America

This week’s Special Report looks at Latin America. How much do you know about the region?


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