Local Challenges in Providing a Right to Water

marthawebIs water and sanitation a problem in Sweden? Professor Martha Davis is spending one year at the Institute in Lund, and we sat down with her to talk about the different approaches to human rights in Sweden and the United States, and how municipalities address access and affordability in the context of the human right to water.

The 2015-2016 Distinguished Chair of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Martha F. Davis, has a history of working with civil rights issues in the United States, and says that in the US, there’s a sometimes a resistance to looking at economic and social rights like right to food and right to shelter. “While working in the domestic context it became increasingly clear to me that in order to even talk about some of these larger issues, human rights were an important component,” Martha says. “Appealing to a human rights frame allows US activists to  speak about the right to welfare or the right to shelter in terms that are legal and powerful, even though they haven’t  been adopted by the US.”

It was from here Martha started working with human rights. For a decade she was working for a national women’s rights organization, and her work there was focused on women in poverty. But increasingly she wanted to talk more broadly about the issues that women in poverty face. Human rights was the natural extension of that. She’s worked a lot with presenting human rights norms to courts and doing trainings of judges and lawyers about international human rights norms. ”Many of us are working very systematically to educate the legal establishment in the US about human rights,” Martha says.

The politics of water
During the last year, before Martha came to Sweden, she worked with groups that are dealing with human right to water, a high profile issue in a couple of US cities. In both Detroit and in Baltimore, large US cities that have a low-income base, Martha says the municipalities began terminating water for people who had fallen behind in paying their bills, something that had not been done on that level before. ”There is often no doubt that people owe the money, but there’s also no doubt that many of them can’t pay. Regardless, they need water and sanitation to live, so a standoff isn’t productive. This presents a serious human rights dilemma for these cities,” she says.

Water and sanitation — a problem in Sweden?
While in Sweden, Martha is going to teach a gender course during the spring, and complete work on a book on international human rights cities which she is co-editing. But the focus is on her research project. ”Here I’m comparing how water is treated in Swedish cities with the U.S. I’ve long been interested in municipal implementation of human rights. In both Sweden and the US, water is a municipal responsibility. Of course, water is very plentiful in Sweden, but costs have been rising here, too. And in light of the Detroit controversy, I’m particularly interested in how water and sanitation are provided to marginalized communities. The focus of my study will be Malmö, a diverse border city in RWI’s backyard, that is currently under particular stress because of high numbers of arriving refugees and EU migrants,” Martha says.

Challenges with human rights in the United States
In the US, one challenge Martha points out is that the civil rights framework was so successful that people are afraid that appeals to human rights would weaken or undermine the civil rights gains. “Human rights is not as developed domestically as civil rights is, so it’s sometimes seen as a sign of weakness that people would be appealing to human rights instead of civil rights. Even though the goals are similar, people see it as a dichotomy,” she says.

The other challenge Martha points out, is lack of awareness. Human rights education is not always strong in the US, and there are few states where human rights education is incorporated into the school curriculum. ”People often think of human rights as something involving someplace else, outside of the US,” Martha says.

Hopes with the time in Lund
Martha says she is enjoying learning more about the Raoul Wallenberg Institute and seeing its international impact. During her year here, she looks forward to mastering the details of local water policy and returning with new insights that can help expand the human right to water in US cities and globally.

Share with your friends