Series: Friends of the human rights to water and sanitation

Date: 9th March 2020

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Interview with the ambassador of Germany to the UN in Geneva  

By Francesca Nava

GENEVA – The second episode of the series: “Friends of the human rights to water and sanitation” features His Excellency Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg, Ambassador and Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations Office.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of their universal recognition throughout 2020, Ambassador Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg shared his perspectives as an active supporter of the human rights to water and sanitation.

WSSCC: We are talking about human rights specifically dedicated to water and sanitation. Of all human rights issues, why is this particularly important to you?

Mr Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg, Ambassador of Germany to the UN in Geneva: Without water, there is no life. We are overusing water resources. The human rights to water and sanitation haven’t received enough attention in the past as people were not aware that there was going to be such a problem. The pattern is continuing while we know that water is a finite resource.

It is crucial to raise awareness of these two very important and basic human rights as they concern all spheres of life. That is why we have dedicated a certain amount of effort to promote these two human rights.

WSSCC: Over the past decade, how has Germany been supporting the development of the human rights to water and sanitation?

Mr Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg: Together with Spain, Germany has introduced resolutions both in the Human Rights Council in Geneva and at the General Assembly in New York. These have represented a great occasion to put emphasis on the rights of girls and women as well as on the connection between water and sanitation and climate change. The overall effect of what we are doing has been positive. We are confident that indeed the importance of human rights to water and sanitation has been promoted. 

WSSCC: Looking at the progress made so far on sanitation, who, or which group, do you think is still left behind across the world?

Mr Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg: I think water and sanitation concerns everybody. We have to recognize the vulnerability of particular groups.  For instance, girls and women, younger generations, and populations in specific parts of the world. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to single out a group because I think the principle should apply. Nobody should be left behind.

WSSCC: When we talk about WASH, often water is highlighted but not as much about sanitation and hygiene. How can sanitation and hygiene unlock the change needed to achieve SDGs in 10 years?

Mr Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg: Let’s also look at this issue through the gender lens. I believe that the issue of hygiene concerns everybody but in specific ways, it concerns women’s rights. It is important that women are empowered to play their full role in societies. Absence of good sanitation and hygiene creates inequalities in society. And specifically, problems for the health of women, their role in the labour market and that is why this has to be corrected.

WSSCC: Germany had one of the higher tax rates on feminine hygiene products in the European Union. But this has changed this year. Following a landmark vote in the parliament last November, effective 1 January 2020, the amount of tax on sanitary items was cut from 19%  for luxury goods to 7%, the rate for daily necessities. Can you explain the reason behind this change?

Mr Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg: Well, hygiene is a daily necessity. 19% is not a luxury tax in Germany. That is the normal tax rate. So, it’s a right and it is also the consequence of us accepting that specific women and girls’ needs should be seen as basic and should be treated accordingly. The government has spoken to the biggest retailers to make sure that the prices really reflect the lower tax rates.

WSSCC: In what way has Germany worked with Mr Heller’s mandate in the past six years? If I ask you to pick one activity, what would come to your mind?

Mr Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg: Mr Heller was a very active Special Rapporteur and Germany supported his activities both politically and financially. We think that Heller has shed light on many aspects of water and sanitation. In particular, one activity that deserves to be mentioned is his outreach to the younger generation. Water and sanitation are of great importance for the youth because it concerns their future.

WSSCC: Looking forward to the next decade, what could be the role of the Special Rapporteur to promote further and protect the human rights to water and sanitation? What could be the role of State and non-State entities?

Mr Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg: Special Rapporteurs are independent people. They have the obligation to ask difficult questions. To ask these questions to government and to other actors. Even, non-state actors, non-governmental actors. So, we would hope that Leo Heller’s successor will fulfil that role, ask difficult questions across society but also within the health system and his role is to show where things can be improved and give the right impulses for us.


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