Article 31: A Well-Spring of Human Rights

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The Guardian/UK

Article 31: A Well-Spring of Human Rights

Article 31 is a campaign to insert the right to clean water in the UN's declaration of human rights – but what else is missing?

by
Leo Hickman

More than 60 years have passed since the general assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Many still view that December day in 1948 as a defining moment in our species' long, often diverted, march towards civilisation. The 30 articles that make up the declaration still sound as relevant today as they did back when humanity was emerging dazed and confused from a global conflict. But might it now be time to consider updating the wording of some of the articles, or even adding new ones, just as the US constitution has slowly evolved since its inception in 1787 with, to date, 27 amendments?

An online campaign called "Article 31" is working to amend a strange anomaly to the original declaration - the omission of the right to clean and accessible water. The right to "food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services" exists under Article 25, but inexplicably there's no specific mention of the right to water, as the campaign organisers point out:

Now, 60 years later, recognising that over a billion people across the planet lack access to clean and potable water and that millions die each year as a result, it is imperative to add one more article to this historic declaration, the right to water.

We, the undersigned, respectfully call upon the United Nations to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, establishing access to clean and potable water as a fundamental human right.

We believe the world will be a better place when the right to water is acknowledged by all nations as a fundamental human right, and that this addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents a major step toward the goal of water for all.

With water scarcity and water privatisation becoming ever bigger issues around the world, there seems to be a well-full of logic supporting this particular campaign, and there appears to be no reason why the general assembly shouldn't make this amendment at the earliest opportunity.

But surely there are other strong candidates for inclusion? For example, there is no provision within the declaration for a right to live in a clean environment, either in the local sense or in the broader sense. Shouldn't it be our human right to be able to swim in a sea free of sewage, litter and mercury? Shouldn't it be our human right to breathe in air free of the sort of toxic gases and particulates found in traffic fumes? Shouldn't it be our human right - or, more accurately, the right of future generations - to live in a world whose finite natural resources are not being depleted and exhausted for the financial benefit of a small minority?

How you word such articles is certainly up for debate, but surely it is time to somehow stitch today's multifaceted environmental concerns into the declaration, especially when many people still appear to believe that one of our fundamental human rights is "to do whatever the hell I like regardless of the wider impact".

But beyond environmental considerations, what about the right to freedom of information? Or, now that we live in an age of BlackBerrys and broadband, how about the right to communicate without hindrance or censorship? And what about the human right to protest in a non-violent manner without threat or intimidation?

What would you want Article 31 to be?

Leo Hickman is a features journalist and editor at the Guardian

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