The Human Right to Water: A Conservative Principle

Today the world celebrates a strange birthday of sorts. On July 28th of last year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing a human right to water and sanitation (64/292), outlining a vague basis for the right in international law, and encouraging states and organizations to coordinate their efforts toward its recognition and protection.

Today, as the international community marks the anniversary with a plenary session of the General Assembly, we in the United States are faced with water-related disappointment on both sides of the political spectrum.

Disenchantment in the mass media and blogosphere does not stem from the fact that little has been done (statistically speaking) to lessen the water crisis worldwide. Perhaps it should, since 4500 children still die every day from thirst and water-borne illness.

No, this discontent comes from the process of UN rights recognition and protection itself.

For liberal commentators, implementation of the “new” right to water by that paragon of international virtue – the United Nations – has been neither sufficiently quick nor effective. Conservatives, for their part, bemoan the “creation” of new rights by a body only minimally accountable to real people.

And conservatives have reason to complain. Over the past half-century we’ve seen the United Nations – an organization intended for little more than the avoidance international conflict – become a champion for the strangest sort of entitlements.

The cause of human rights was initially a unifying project, drawing the international community (such as it was) into a dialogue that would universalize legal protection for inherent human dignity. It was a process based firmly in an acknowledgement that the laws of man should conform to a certain transcendent moral order – a true conservative ideal. Human rights were to be no more than posited legal protections for those natural rights we are afforded by our divine creation… a distillation of transcendent Truth into legal formulae that could be more easily enforced across the myriad of socio-political structures created for the preservation of justice.

But the human rights project paved the way for its own decline. Member States expanded the scope of UN activities vis-à-vis rights, first by creating legal mechanisms and quasi-judicial bodies for their protection. Development initiatives to promote rights-access came next, followed by coordinated military responses to rights-atrocities in the name of “peacekeeping.” Each of these projects has had its own moments of utility and failure.

Just as human rights had become an excuse for an expansion of the organization’s mandate, they also became an excuse for a process by which any entitlement considered “desirable” by a large number of Member States might be elevated to the status of a right.

“Reproductive rights” were championed by enlightened Western powers, and most recently the UNGA considered a resolution proposing “human rights” for Mother Earth… the ultimate anthropomorphic bastardization of what was once a sacred construct based in an acknowledgement of human dignity.

Though they remain effective tools for political and legal protection in some places, the soul of human rights have been forgotten, and the role of the United Nations in affirming and safeguarding human rights has become a key point of disapproval among reasonable people worldwide.

Things, however, need not be so droll. Conservatives should see today’s anniversary of the right to water not as an occasion for complaint, but rather as the perfect opportunity to re-center the debate.

The difference between recognizing a right to water and recognizing the “right” to kill an unborn child is simple: one is read and one is written. Abortion has been “written” as a right by some countries, to be enforced upon others. The human right to water is read from its fundamentality to the human experience. If man truly enjoys a right to live a life in dignity, he must consequently have a right to the clean water necessary to do so.

By promoting a right to water we show “written” rights for what they truly are, neo-colonial distortions of the natural law. More importantly, by reinforcing basic rights like the right to life-giving water, we can reassert those conservative principles that underpin a just society.

The right to water encourages subsidiarity by mandating participation and access to information at the local and community levels. It pushes the international community toward a more humane political economy – one that preserves the free market while acknowledging our responsibility to ensure the poorest and most marginalized basic access to the social goods we hold in common. Most importantly, the right to water (like all true human rights) reinforces the Truth of inherent human dignity – no small feat in today’s world.

The point is this: human rights are the most effective tools we have to strengthen a just society across disparate cultures. For human rights, when appropriately understood and responsibly applied, can legally order the protection of human dignity… a difficult task for an international community that suffers more and more from a Babel complex.

We as conservatives can harness the power of human rights for good, reminding the international community through our support for the right to water that true rights are not born of a UN resolution. They pre-exist the UN as natural entitlements and will outlive her, as their truth is more basic then her utility. In the same way, those “human rights” created by UN resolutions without corresponding to the natural law will fail the test of justice and become “laws in name only.” As Augustine would attest, an unjust law is no law at all.

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