The Vatican's Thirst for a Right to Water

By George McGraw

Today is World Water Day.

It's not a date you'll find on the Catholic liturgical calendar. But that doesn't mean that the Vatican won't be paying close attention to today's activities in support of clean water and sanitation worldwide.

Water is a favorite topic of diplomacy for the Holy See, and it has been for some time now. Last week Flaminia Giovanelli, Under Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, announced that her office would soon release a new document with the lofty goal of charting "where we are on the question of water." The paper, entitled "Water, an Essential Element for Life," will actually summarize the Council's three previous position papers of the same title, the first released in 2003.

Perhaps the Vatican's recent preoccupation with water should come as no surprise. After all, water has always enjoyed a prominent place in Christian spirituality -- as in Jewish tradition before it. Water is central to a life in human dignity which the Church seeks to define and defend at the international level though her doctrine on social justice.

With nearly a billion people living in water poverty today, there couldn't be a better time.

But there is one aspect of the Vatican's position on water that makes its international intervention decidedly controversial. In this year's "Water, an Essential Element" the Holy See will defend water access as an essential human right, one still hotly debated in international law.

When legal human rights were first introduced in 1948, the right to water wasn't included in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the treaties derived from it. Many scholars believe that water was considered so basic, that it was quite simply overlooked. Since then, other water-related obligations have found protection in international law, but the closest thing we have to formal recognition of a human right to water is a (non-binding) 2010 UN resolution.

It seems states have generally failed to acknowledge the right to water for two reasons: either due to a concern that it would make them liable for water provision (a costly endeavor), or because such a right might challenge traditional property rights.

The Vatican's position is doubly controversial because it's couched in a criticism of "an excessively commercial conception of water" which the Holy See insists isn't just another "for-profit commodity dependent on market logic." This language was used to announce the new position paper at last week's World Water Forum in Marseille -- a gathering that suffered criticism for allowing corporate interests and dissenting states to weaken consensus on the human right to water.

But despite some controversy, the Holy See's stance is one that makes sense -- both in light of the Church's understanding of social justice and human rights, and because it best represents a natural reality that other nations may be politically unwilling to admit.

In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI insists that it is "necessary to... [consider] food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings without distinction or discrimination." His conviction is born from an understanding of rights as part of the natural law -- a basic tenant of Catholic social teaching.

Properly understood, rights belong to us by simple virtue of our humanity. The action of a government to formally recognize them is powerful, but secondary. In promoting the human right to water, the Holy See insists that it is not "creating" a new right, but only honoring a right that humans have always enjoyed.

Since Pope Leo XIII first penned Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church has claimed the right to instruct on social issues. Ideally this should complement the State's own function: the creation of a just society that recognizes and respects those rights. Unencumbered as it is by the corporate and legal entanglements (the politics) of modern statehood, the Vatican is able to more clearly lead on these issues.

By taking a human rights approach to the water crisis, the Vatican bravely pinpoints both an injustice and a starting point: a base of action from which we can begin to scale-up human development as an international community.

On World Water Day, it seems like the perfect place to refocus our efforts.

George McGraw is a human rights professional based in Los Angeles. His organization, DigDeep Water, is a member of the World Water Day coalition.

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