ESC rights related resolutions from the 70th session of the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee

ESC rights related resolutions from the 70th General Assembly’s Third Committee

There were several positive economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights initiatives during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee’s meetings in October/ November 2015, including important developments on the rights to water and sanitation, the rights of rural women, and human rights defenders.

Two sepatate but interconnected rights: Water and sanitation

In a historic resolution, a resolution on water and sanitation was passed which for the first time recognized two separate rights: a right to safe drinking water, and a right to sanitation. This was a very positive step forwards in the development of the rights, particularly as the resolution was again passed by consensus with 52 co-sponsors. This annual resolution sponsored by Spain and Germany has been on a positive trajectory since the General Assembly’s 2010 resolution[1] which formally declared the right to safe drinking water and sanitation a stand-alone right[2], deriving from the right to an adequate standard of living in Article 11 of the ICESCR. Progress was achieved in the 2014 Human Rights Council resolution (A/HRC/27/7) which contained the full definition of the right[3] (it was still recognised as one right at that stage) which comes from General Comment No 15. of the UN Committee on Economic, Social Rights (CESCR) on the right to water.

The case for the recognition of two separate rights was made by the former Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation in her 2009 Report to the Human Rights Council on access to sanitation[4] and supported by a Statement of the CESCR in 2010.[5] Strong civil society advocacy efforts have also been an important and driving force in achieving the separate recognition of the two rights.

Whilst the GA resolution still refers to the ‘human right to safe drinking water’ which seems to ignore the importance of water for other non-drinking uses, it describes the content of the right as for ‘personal and domestic use’. This language recognises that the right extends beyond ‘drinking water,’

The resolution also includes a welcome emphasis on women, their leadership and participation in decision-making on water and sanitation management and efforts to address the unequal burden of household water collection on women and girls which impacts access to education and exposes women and girls to violence.

There is also an important call on States to eliminate inequalities in access to water. This is significant in the context of the SDGs and to avoid the problems faced by the MDGs which often ignored inequalities and discrimination in access to water and sanitation services. The paragraph specifically commits to eliminate inequalities with respect to race, gender, age, disability, ethnicity, culture and religion. However it is noteworthy that the commitment with respect to inequalities in a second category, rural-urban disparities, slum residence and income levels, is only to ‘progressively eliminate inequalities’.[6] In this respect para 5(d) is also important as it asks States to ‘identify patterns of failure to respect, protect or fulfil’ the rights and ‘address their structural causes in policymaking and budgeting’. This clause attempts to tackle the discrimination and inequality built into systems and structures that prevents those living in poverty from realising their rights.

Improving the lives of rural women

The ‘improvement of the situation of women and girls in rural areas’ was the subject of a comprehensive resolution[7] adopted by the General Assembly without a vote in November 2015. The resolution was a follow-up to a similar resolution 2 years ago (A/RES/68/139 (18 December 2013)) which had asked the Secretary General to prepare a report on implementation of that resolution. The 2015 resolution takes note of the Secretary General’s report and makes recommendations to States.

The report of the Secretary-General (A/70/204) sets out efforts by States to address the obstacles and challenges that impede progress towards the economic empowerment of rural women, especially the poorest and most marginalized, and to enable them to improve their lives and livelihoods. It discusses advances and continuing challenges in: sustainable and gender-responsive agricultural and rural development; recognizing and redistributing rural women’s unpaid care work; employment, decent work and social protection; access to land and productive resources; and food security and nutrition.

There were several important recommendations offered to States, including:

  • supporting rural women’s full and equal participation in decision-making at all levels, including through affirmative action;
  • integrating a gender perspective into the design, implementation and evaluation …. development policies, plans, programmes, … budgets …. the governance of natural resources, leveraging the participation and influence of women in managing the sustainable use of natural resources[8];
  • increasing knowledge, awareness and support for the elimination of harmful practices[9] and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights;
  • valuing and supporting the critical role of rural women … in the conservation and sustainable use of traditional crops and biodiversity for present and future generations…[10];
  • ensuring women’s and girls’ unpaid work is recognised and promoting shared and equitable responsibility for unpaid work and care responsibilities within the household;[11] and
  • implementing laws to ensure that rural women have equal rights to own and lease land and other property, including inheritance rights and access to capital and financial services.[12]

Other topics covered include: older women, women with disabilities, violence against women, the right to water, food security, developing women’s economic skills, equal access to decent work, access to labour saving technologies, climate change,[13] education and training and access to social protection for female-headed rural households.

On the whole, the recommendations in the resolution are very similar to those posed in the 2013 resolution, although some changes to reflect the expiry of the MDGs and move to the SDGs and some amendments to language around sexual and reproductive health and rights[14], and to refer to climate change.[15]

The resolution also asks the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and other UN bodies to give consideration to these issues and the Secretary-General to present a further report on its implementation at the General Assembly in 2017.

Given all we know about the links between realising the human rights of rural women and poverty alleviation, including achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goal, it is encouraging to see the General Assembly’s giving attention to this important topic. The GA’s consideration of the human rights of rural women coincides with a number of other processes focused on this, which hopefully will continue to build momentum and political will around prioritising rural women’s rights. The CEDAW Committee’s forth-coming General Recommendation on Rural Women which will elaborate on the content of the rights in Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. Further, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights is considering adopting a General Comment on Article 7(d) of the Maputo Protocol, focussing on women’s rights to land and property within the context of marriage and divorce.

Human rights defenders and ESC rights

Whilst the human rights defender resolution has traditionally focused on freedom of expression and association, amongst other rights, more recently there has been growing recognition and interest in the increasing link to ESC rights. We have known for some time that human rights defenders working on economic and social rights issues are at particular risk of harassment and violence from powerful State and non-State actors against whose policies and projects they protest. However, more recently there has been a proliferation of civil society reports confirming the growing number of defenders working on land and environment issues being killed, attacked, disappeared or harassed for their work. This trend is now being reflected in the resolution on human rights defenders in the General Assembly[16] which is sponsored by Norway. Whilst the resolution attracted some controversy when a vote was called for the first time in its 16 year history[17], its inclusion of elements focusing on the link with ESC rights was a welcome advance.

The resolution recognised the vital work of ESC rights defenders and raised concerns about threats and attacks against them and their work. Further, it highlighted the need to ‘respect, protect, facilitate and promote the work of those promoting and defending economic, social and cultural rights, as a vital factor contributing towards the realization of those rights, including as they relate to environmental and land issues as well as development’.[18] The other paragraph that bears on the situation of human rights defenders working on ESC rights, deals with consultations and dialogue.[19] Lack of (or inadequate) consultation or ability to participate in decision-making is a common complaint of those protesting violations of the right to adequate housing, water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to food and human rights issues relating to land and natural resources. Many of the Special Procedures mandate holders working on these issues and the CESCR (as well as other treaty bodies) have stressed the importance of the right to participation in the context of land and environment conflicts and economic development, including as an element in preventing conflict with local communities and avoiding human rights violations.[20]

The resolution ‘Reaffirms the utility and benefit of consultations and dialogue with human rights defenders related to public policies and programmes’. Whilst this an important concept to capture in the resolution, broader language which highlights the right to participation, not only of ‘human rights defenders’ but of ‘affected communities’, would strengthen it.

This is significant new language and we hope this focus will continue through the work of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the 2016 resolution in the Human Rights Council.

3 December 2015


Lucy McKernan

Geneva Representative

Global Initiative for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights

[email protected]

+41 (0)79 103 7719

[1] A/64/292, July 2010

[2] Closely followed by the September 2010 Human Rights Council resolution which affirmed that the right to water and sanitation was a legally binding right in international law, and adopted without a vote (unlike the July 2010 General Assembly resolution). For further information see: ‘Recognition of the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation by UN Member States at the International Level’ by Amnesty International & WASH United,

[3] Preambular Paragraph 21: Reaffirming that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use and to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.

[4] A/HRC/12/24, 2009.

[5] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ›Statement on the Right to Sanitation‹ on 19 November 2010, UN Doc E/C.12/2010/1)

[6] OP 5(a)

[7] A/C.3/70/L.24/Rev.1, adopted without a vote on 23 November 2015, see

[8] 2(e) & (f)

[9] paragraph 2(g)

[10] paragraph 2(l),

[11] paragraph 2(s), (u)

[12] paragraph 2(z)

[13] paragraph 2(v)

[14] eg: paragraphs 2(g),(i),

[15] paragraph 2(v)

[16] A/C.3/70/L.46/Rev.1, 18 November 2015

[17] See

[18] A/C.3/70/L.46/Rev.1 OP 9

[19] A/C.3/70/L.46/Rev.1 OP 12

[20] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation: A/69/213, presented to the General Assembly in October 2014, see

Categories Uncategorized | Tags: | Posted on December 16, 2015

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