RWSN members’ inputs on social accountability are helping Human Rights Special Rapporteur report to UN General Assembly

by Sean Furey, Skat/RWSN Secretariat

What does ‘accountability’ mean to you? When it comes to the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation what progress has been made to ensure that Duty Bearers (Governments) are accountable to their Rights Holders (Citizens)?

Such legalistic sounding terms can seem distant from the needs of family in rural Mongolia or fast-growing city in India, but the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation form the legal back-bone to which signatory governments (which is nearly all of them) have to comply.

Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights to Water & Sanitation, has been running an open consultation on his forthcoming report to the UN General Assembly, which is focusing on the principle of accountability. I was honoured to be invited to attend a meeting in Geneva on 14 & 15 May on behalf of RWSN.

Like his predecessor, Catarina de Albuquerque , Prof. Heller has been collaborating with the network to engage with rural water supply practitioners so that he can communicate the global issues to those working on national and local implementation and policy, and likewise learn from the those who working to making Human Rights a reality at a practical level. This included the recent e-discussion on Social Accountability.

In his draft report, Prof. Heller drew points from this discussion, particularly regarding the accountability of non-governmental organisations:

“Participants [of the RWSN e-discussion] discussed that accountability is enhanced when reducing dependence on external funds, and through ensuring meaningful participation of citizens in all process relating to water, sanitation and hygiene processes.”

The principle of accountability as a core human rights principle does not have a set and agreed definition. The three dimensions that were used to frame the discussion were:

  1. “Responsibility” which means “what” Duty Bearers are accountable for; “who” carries out the duties; and “how” those WASH service responsibilities are done.
  2. “Answerability” is need for public officials to communicate what they are doing and why and how decisions have been taken. This is important because governments, as the Duty Bearers, are required to demonstrate the “progressive realisation”, which means maximising available resources to ensure universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
  3. “Enforceability” is about making sure that there are the mechanisms in place to ensure that rules and laws are enforced, and that there is a fair and accessible means for complaints and conflict resolution.

A lot of the discussion focused on factors and barriers to effective accountability, such as corruption and the lack of protection for whistle-blowers. It was also highlighted that civil society, and civil society organisations (CSOs), have a vital role to play in holding governments to account – not least where responsibility has been delegated to private sector service providers, community management or self-supply.

In the wide-ranging discussion it was clearer that there are lots of threats to accountability, not least because it involves changing power dynamics, which will be resisted by those in power. Defining clear roles and responsibilities is critical for accountability, which is why those are who are to be held accountable have an interest to keep such things vague.

“The fight for Human Rights is against human wrongs”

For rural water supply – as for rural issues generally in low and middle-income countries – a key problem is that formal legal processes and agencies, such as courts and lawyers, are often physically distant, expensive and not trusted. So where does that leave traditional social or religious mechanisms for conflict resolution? Do those working to extend a rights based approach work with these structures (at the risk of entrenching existing discrimination) or try to extend legal and judicial mechanisms?

What is clear is that these issues around accountability, rights and justice are not unique or special for rural water supply, or even for WASH, so it was great that in this meeting we had representatives from outside the sector, who highlighted, for example, the strong links between the Human Rights for Water and Sanitation with other Rights, including housing, food and dignity.

To keep up to date with this discussion and for opportunities to submit your ideas and experiences, follow Léo on Twitter.

20180515_122720 (2)
UN Special Rapporteur, Léo Heller (centre) with representatives from WASH and human rights organisations and networks (including RWSN, SIWI, Water Integrity Network, KEWASNET, End Water Poverty, Coalition Eau and WSSCC)

To find out more have a look at these RWSN resources:

E-discussion synthesis & publications:

Webinar Recordings:

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