Interview with Mr Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation


GENEVA – Earlier in June, WSSCC had the opportunity to interview Mr Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Here is what he has to say about the striking connection between sanitation and human rights.

WSSCC: First of all, why do we need a separate right to sanitation?

Mr Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation: Maybe it is better to start talking about the United Nations resolutions that acknowledged the distinction between the rights to water and to sanitation. There was a resolution by the UN General Assembly in 2015 and another by the Human Rights Council in 2016 and those resolutions identified that the right to water and the right to sanitation are two distinct rights, although they still recognize that they are integrated rights. So, it is very important to consider the two sides of the equation: they are integrated but at the same time, they have distinctions. I would like to use the picture of the Yin Yang from the Chinese philosophy to illustrate that. In the picture, this diagram, black and white, both sides of the picture are different, associated and complementary. We can roughly think on water and sanitation in this way and there are several reasons for that.

One key definition of the human rights is that all human rights are interrelated, integrated and interdependent. This is an interesting way to look at the right to water and the right to sanitation. Both rights have strong relations with other rights. And, when we think about the right to sanitation, we can identify strong links with, for instance, the right to health and the right to education. So, the idea is that the lack of adequate toilets in some spaces, at the household level, but also in other spheres of life, impacts heavily different rights: the right to health, the right to education, the right to housing, and several others.


WSSCC: Can you also explain human right components that are specific to sanitation?

Mr Heller: When we define the right to water and the right to sanitation, we use a framework of the normative content, of both rights. The normative content of the right to water encompasses availability, accessibility, affordability, acceptability and quality. For sanitation, we use roughly the same framework. We use also these five words, replacing quality with safety, but we add two more elements for its content that are privacy and dignity. Privacy and dignity are very specific for sanitation and they are very related to the gender dimension of the access to the services. So, this is a difference between water and sanitation that we need to consider. And, again, the gender issue is very strong when we talk about sanitation when, for instance, there is no separate facilities in the public space, the women are impacted more heavily than the men and the girls more heavily than the boys.


WSSCC: You will be one of the speakers at a seminar called “Sanitation for all – Who are we excluding?” that will take place at Stockholm World Water Week in August. Who are we exactly excluding?

Mr Heller: We can address that in two different ways. One way is to look at who doesn’t have the services and the other way is to consider who is most impacted when you don’t have the services.

And, who does not have access to the services? It’s mostly the poor people, the people who are homeless, I would say people in detention centers, among others. So, when we break down the national numbers, we would identify these severe inequalities against the most discriminated populations.

The other way to look at it is to look at who is most impacted. When, for instance, in a household there is no adequate access to water, the most impacted are the women, the girls, persons with disabilities, older persons. So, we need to start thinking that in a household there is not an homogeneous population, the people who live in a household are very different and they are impacted in different ways when the services are not adequate.

WSSCC: Why do we have to leave no one behind? What does it mean in sanitation?

Mr Heller: It is a question of justice; this is the slogan of the 2030 agenda, and I think it is a very fair slogan. We need to work on leaving no one behind. And, if we look at the political dimension of that, this has a very important implication on the agenda, because what we are realizing – when looking at the timeline of the access to water and sanitation – is that in some cases the inequalities are increasing, not decreasing, which means that the policies are still prioritizing the wealthiest part of the population. So, leave no one behind means that the policies should invert this order of priorities. In other words, they need to put first the people that are the most marginalized. And this is an important shift in the mindset of the policy formulation and this has also implications on, for instance, how to fund the system, how to establish systems for affordability of the poor without compromising the sustainability of the system. So, the message needs to be taken by the policy formulations.

WSSCC: Sanitation goes beyond just improving open defecation and people are noticing a positive impact on human rights, menstrual hygiene, health and education. In that sense, what can WSSCC do to advance your cause? What do you expect from our organization?

Mr Heller: It is a good question. It is interesting to see how the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program report is addressing the access to services. The Joint Monitoring Program created a ladder with different stages of service levels. For sanitation, “open defecation” is of course the lowest level and the highest level corresponds to “safely managed services.” So, the idea of starting with eliminating open defecation is not bad, but we can’t stop here, and it is important to use a concept that the human rights articulate very well, that is the concept of progressive realization of the rights. Governments are supposed to move always gradually in terms of providing the best possible level of services for the populations. I think this is something that [WSSCC] can look at when on the field, when it is formulating policies and programs and when researching: to think on how it is the best way to progressively realize the rights. Progressive realization has not only to do with the level of services but also to other dimensions of the rights, such as affordability and acceptability.

WSSCC is a United Nations organization having a privileged position to promote and encourage countries to realize these rights. So, my expectation is that the organization increasingly incorporates the concepts of the human rights to water and sanitation and strongly promotes those rights.