MRRtalk episode 4

15 resolutions. 193 countries. Countless advocacy opportunities.

Episode 4 of MRR talk focussed on the use of United Nations (UN) resolutions on the human rights to water and sanitation by civil society organisations.

The Making Rights Real materials​

Tseguereda Abraham, Head of Advocacy and System Strengthening, WaterAid Ethiopia and Hannah Neumeyer, lead of the Make Rights Real consortium and Head of Human Rights, WASH United, explored the topic and were joined by guests from CSOs around the world. Due to technical difficulties, we can’t share a recording of the talk this time. So, for those that couldn’t make it, we’re sharing a summary of the conversation in the post below.

What are the two most important points I need to know about UN resolutions and civil society advocacy?

There are two important points to remember when thinking about how civil society organisations can use resolutions in their advocacy so that governments improve the way they realise services for all:

(1) The human rights to water and sanitation are guaranteed in international human rights law. Countries have made commitments to realise these rights. They need to translate these commitments into their national legal systems by giving meaning to principles and standards that come with rights – in their laws, their policies and in the daily practice of responsible institutions.

(2) Civil society advocacy has a key role to play in bringing this about! A study on a global sample of 123 states over a 15-year period found that the recognition of the right to water in the legal system alone does not lead to better services. Civil society participation as a pressuring factor on governments is one key aspect that changes this and contributes to better services.


If laws, policies and practice are all important, how can civil society seek to influence these different levels to give more meaning to rights in practice?

Civil society, both local organisations and INGOs, can support awareness and be a catalyst for change in attitudes and understanding that access to water and sanitation are rights and not a special benefit. Examples include:

(1) Promoting new national legal provisions that incorporate the human rights to water and sanitation as recognised in resolutions.

For example, civil society successfully advocated for the inclusion of the human rights to water and sanitation in the Kenyan Constitution when this was being reformed. Today, the Constitution includes both rights in Article 43:63.

(2) Reviewing national laws and policies to examine whether they consider principles and standards of the human rights to water and sanitation.

For example, do national water and sanitation policies oblige government institutions to adhere to human rights principles of participation, transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination and equality?

Do national monitoring frameworks and processes collect data on and analyse human rights standards of accessibility, affordability, quality and acceptability of water and sanitation services?

(3) To change the practice of institutions, it is important to demystify the human rights to water and sanitation to make them practical and actionable in processes at local and district level. Advocating for change by creating best practices can be successful. For example, using the Making Rights Real approach in Ethiopia, WaterAid saw better awareness of marginalisation amongst officials, better coordination between institutions that deal with equality and more intentional engagement with marginalised groups, including women, people with disabilities and internally displaced people. This resulted in more inclusive planning and budgeting processes.

Advocacy is about holding up a mirror to the government and saying: “Look what you have committed yourself to – now you need to take action to fulfil this commitment”. What can civil society organisations use to do this?

There are several tools and strategies that civil society organisations commonly use, such as:

(1) Policy briefings on commitments a government has made, including in resolutions. These often compare the commitment made to implementation in practice. Mapping inequalities in the enjoyment of services can also be a powerful tool, for example on accessibility or on services in informal settlements.

(2) Sharing human testimonies on how an improved understanding of rights changes perspectives in planning, project delivery processes and in monitoring can inspire others to follow good practice examples.

(3) Accountability action research products CSOs can work on identifying best practices and working processes that make duty bearers more accountable and rights holders more active in making demands. Various approaches to social accountability can be tested and shared and most importantly CSOs can play a leading role in strengthening accountability systems and institutionalising processes at rural water facility and utility levels.

(4) Raising issues of human rights at strategic moments can be important to increase the political responsiveness. For example, WaterAid raised the issue of the gendered effects of COVID-19 on access to water, sanitation and hygiene in East Africa, highlighting points that are important in any emergency.

(5) UN documents and resolutions are currently mostly used by human rights organisations to demand access to adequate water and sanitation services – for example women’s rights groups or disability rights organisations. Countries do not give meaning to resolutions nationally. And in the WASH sector, hardly anyone even knows they exist.


What are the most important facts I need to know about UN resolutions?

People working in the WASH sector will often say “in 2010, the UN recognised the human rights to water and sanitation”. This is both correct and incorrect. Firstly, it was countries that recognised these rights, not the United Nations as an institution. Resolutions are negotiated and adopted by countries. Secondly, countries recognised the human rights to water and sanitation in 2010 – and another 14 times thereafter. Every year, countries negotiate and adopt one resolution either at the UN General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.

What are resolutions? Are they like laws?

No. Resolutions are not laws, because they are not legally binding. In international human rights law, treaties are the equivalent of laws at the national level. They are legally binding. For the human rights to water and sanitation, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is the main treaty. This treaty is legally binding for 171 countries that have ratified it.

Resolutions map:

You can check whether your country has ratified this and other human rights treaties in this map
This treaty does not mention the words water or sanitation – and this makes resolutions on the human rights to water and sanitation important. The recognition that water and sanitation are in fact human rights happened in UN resolutions. Every resolution states that water and sanitation are human rights and are part of the human right to an adequate standard of living. This right is guaranteed in Article 11 of ICESCR. Even though resolutions are not legally binding, they reflect countries’ positions and are a formal commitment to a topic. They can be compared to policies at the national level. Resolutions are negotiated and agreed on by countries and adopted through a formal process. After 15 resolutions, countries can hardly walk from this commitment. The power that resolutions can have can be seen in the Sustainable Development Goals. The Goals are a major driver of how development cooperation is done. They were adopted as a UN General Assembly resolution.

What about the substance of these resolutions? What is in them?

With 15 resolutions so far, this is not easy to summarise. Resolutions serve to create consensus at the international level on how to interpret the human rights to water and sanitation and what steps must be taken to realise them. The wording is quite general, because it needs to be applicable to all countries in the world. All resolutions (on the human rights to water and sanitation or any other topic) have two parts: (1) A so-called preambular section that introduces the topic. It will include statistics on the number of people without water and sanitation services and highlight progress made as well as challenges to realising these rights. It will reaffirm previous resolutions, which is important to build a strong foundation of international consensus. (2) The second part is called the operative part. This includes ‘calls to action’, which set out what countries should do to realise the human rights to water and sanitation. There is usually a paragraph that starts with “Calls upon States” and then lists several calls to action. You could look at this part in a resolution and see what is useful to refer to in your work – especially in the resolutions that your country has supported. In the last resolution, adopted by the UN General Assembly in late 2021, important topics in the negotiations included the COVID-19 pandemic and pandemic preparedness and response generally; climate change; inequality and discrimination; as well as humanitarian situations.

How do I know if my country supported a resolution?

You need to check whether your country has ‘co-sponsored’ a resolution. A co-sponsor is a country that explicitly supports a resolution. How does that work?

Resolutions map:

You can check which resolutions your country has co-sponsored in this map
All resolutions (on any topic) have sponsors. The sponsors prepare the first draft of the resolution and then chair the negotiations. Comparing it to the national level, this is like a political party that prepares a draft law to be negotiated and adopted by the parliament. Co-sponsors join the sponsors in bringing the resolution forward for adoption. Again comparing it to the national level, this is like a coalition of parties that jointly brings forward a law for adoption by parliament. Co-sponsorship is the strongest support a country can give to a resolution at the United Nations. Some of the resolutions on the human rights to water and sanitation have more than 100 co-sponsors. And only four countries in the world have never been a co-sponsor. So, chances are that your country has co-sponsored a resolution!

How can I use this information in my country?

You could go to your government and point out that it has co-sponsored a resolution, which contains the recognition of water and sanitation as human rights and commitments to undertake steps to realise these rights. This can be a very strong argument in policy-making discussions. International commitments can also be useful to refer to because they remove the issue from day-to-day political discussions at the national level.

Who decides what is in resolutions? Is it only countries or is there scope for civil society to influence resolutions?


Please take part in our brief online survey. It’s open until 8 August! We’ll compile your views into a civil society statement and use this during the negotiations at the UN Human Rights Council.
Countries negotiate and adopt resolutions, so they decide what is in them. Civil society can influence resolutions through lobbying and advocacy. There are two ways to do this that we want to highlight here: (1) Influencing a country’s position: This will usually require lobbying the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which represents the position of a country at the United Nations. The diplomats speaking for the country at the UN General Assembly or Human Rights Council receive so-called ‘instructions from capital’. During the negotiations, they use these instructions as guidance and can’t deviate from them. It can be useful to urge your Ministry of Foreign Affairs to co-sponsor future resolutions or to take a certain position in the negotiations. (2) Combining civil society voices: The next resolution on the human rights to water and sanitation will be negotiated at the UN Human Rights Council in September and October 2022. For these negotiations, we would like to hear what topics are particularly important for you to see in this resolution.