UNITED NATIONS – Watch out, Detroit. Here comes the United Nations.
WND has learned that after issuing a statement last week condemning Detroit’s decision to send water shut-off notices to tens of thousands of customers behind in their payments, the U.N now plans to conduct confidential policy discussions with the Obama administration to be followed by a formal public report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
On Monday, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s office in Geneva confirmed to WND that the U.N. plans to intervene directly in the Detroit water crisis, determined to apply international law to judge the U.S. in violation of human rights to safe water.
Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, DWSD, announced in March it would send shut-off notices to customers with balances more than $150 overdue or who are more than two months behind in their payments. The department, which said nearly half of the 324,000 water and sewerage accounts are overdue, has put out 46,000 notices since March. About 4,500 accounts have had their water shut off.
In response to a WND inquiry, Madoka Saji, a human rights officer in the Special Procedures Branch of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, explained in an email Monday that the U.N. plans to intervene directly in the Detroit crisis, because the Human Rights Council has received formal allegations the Detroit water shut-off threatens to violate U.N.-established human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation mandates.
Saji explained that the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur on safe water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, must intervene directly with the U.S. government, first in a confidential manner and then in a public manner.
The Associated Press noted in a report June 25 that de Albuquerque can make recommendations and lend “moral weight,” but she has no enforcement power.
The U.N. in Geneva further pointed out that de Albuquerque encountered similar water disconnection cases in her first official “country mission” to the United States from Feb. 22 to March 4, 2011. Her final report, Aug. 2, 2011, recommended the U.S. adopt a federal minimum standard on affordability for water and sanitation in conformity with the U.N.’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
Although the United States signed the U.N.’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights on Oct. 5, 1977, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. Senate never ratified the treaty.
Saji explained to WND that de Albuquerque has a mandate to communicate with any nation violating the U.N. covenant, whether or not the nation has ratified the document as a treaty obligation.
In a U.N. news release June 25, de Albuquerque stated water shut-offs due to non-payment are only justified “if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but not paying,” further alleging that “when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”
In the same press release, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Leilana Farha, expressed concern that children are being removed from their families and homes because, without access to water, their housing is no longer considered adequate.
“If these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the United States has ratified,” Farha added, strongly suggesting standards established by the U.N.’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights may not be the only international law the U.N. seeks to apply to the water shut-off crisis in Detroit.
DWSD serves approximately 700,000 Detroit residents and an additional 4 million people in southeastern Michigan, while selling water service to suburban communities that in turn bill their residents.
Rush weighs in
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh poked fun Monday at the U.N., Detroit and its residents, who he said have racked up $90 million in overdue water bills.
“By the way, folks, I checked. Apparently water bills in Detroit are the one thing not subsidized by government. That, I think, is probably why so many in Detroit are now up in arms. They get pretty much every social service free; they can’t understand why they’ve gotta pay for water. I think that’s largely true.”
He said half the city’s population “has had their water cut off because they’re not paying for it, either because they refuse to or because they can’t.”
“The U.N. is thinking about going in there and make sure the water is turned on for everybody, even though they can’t afford it,” he said. “They think this is just outrageous.”
He noted the city’s efforts to emerge from bankruptcy then wondered if President Obama is aware of the problem.
“Does Obama know that they’ve cut the water off to so many people in Detroit? Does Obama know that the U.N. says that Detroit’s violating international standards in his country? Does he know this? You’d think he would be mad about this and would go tell the U.N. to pound sand.
‘Habit’ of non-payment
Last week, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., leveraged the U.N. involvement for immediate federal emergency relief for Detroit’s residents.
“Detroit’s water crisis did not happen in a vacuum,” Conyers said in a statement reported by the Detroit Free Press.
“Over the past decade,” Conyers said. “Detroiters have seen their water rates increase by 119 percent. Over this same period, forces beyond city residents’ control –including a global financial crisis that left one in five local residences in foreclosure and sent local unemployment rates skyrocketing – severely undercut Detroiters’ ability to pay.”
However, DWSD spokeswoman Curtrise Garner told CBS Detroit that the department has programs to help customers who are “totally in need.”
She argued that not paying the water bill has simply become a habit among many of Detroit’s impoverished residents.
“But we also know that there are people who can afford it, and we know this because once we shut the water off, the next day they are paying the bill in full.”
Garner told CBS Detroit that with an estimated half of Detroit water customers unable or unwilling to pay their bills, activists have lobbied the United Nations to take action.
The activists contend that the planned DWSD water shut-offs are not about recouping millions in unpaid bills but a campaign to remove people from their homes.
“Water is the wedge,” said Detroit activist Shea Howel.” People are being targeted at the rate of 1500 to 3000 homes a week.”
Howell pointed out DWSD is not threatening similar disconnections against corporate clients such as Detroit Public Safety, which owes $2.2 million in outstanding bills. Palmer Golf Club owes $2.2 million, the Joe Louis Arena/Red Wings Hockey $80,000 and Ford Field $55,000.
Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project, headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada, filed last week a report to de Albuquerque protesting the Detroit water shut-offs with a united front that included the left-leaning Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Food & Water Watch and the Detroit People’s Water Board.
The Barlow report charged that Detroit’s water crisis has resulted from decades of public policy that have put corporate business and profit ahead of the public good and human rights.
The report alleges:
The case of water cut-offs in the City of Detroit speaks to the deep racial divides and intractable economic and social inequality in access to services within the United States. The burden of paying for city services has fallen onto the residents who have stayed within the economically depressed city, most of whom are African-American. These residents have seen water rates rise by 119 per cent within the last decade. With official, understated unemployment rates at a record high and the official, understated poverty rate at about 40 percent, Detroit water bills are unaffordable to a significant portion of the population.
“What we see is a violation of the human right to water,” Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project, explained to Al Jazeera America on the submission of the report to the U.N.
“The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it.”
U.S. resists U.N. on water rights
The U.S. has consistently opposed the U.N. push to define clean water as a fundamental human right.
In 2007, the United States government submitted a detailed explanation of its views to the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.
In it, the U.S. recognized the importance of providing water while rejecting the view that a “right to water” exists under current formulations of international human rights law.
The 2007 U.S. rebuttal to the U.N. argued:
Understanding how the United States addresses these issues [equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation] requires an understanding of the U.S. system of federalism, under which, state and local authorities play the primary role in promoting access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Over time, the U.S. Congress and the courts have increased the involvement of the federal government in certain areas. Today here are a wide range of federal laws and regulations aimed at promoting safe drinking water and sanitation. However, state sovereignty over many water issues remains.
On Nov. 21, 2013, the U.N. General Assembly Third Committee [Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural] approved 11 draft resolutions including a text on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation that called on all U.N. members, including the United States, “to ensure the progressive realization of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation for all in a non-discriminatory manner, while eliminating inequalities in access.”
Delia M. Arias De Léon, a Wellesley College political science student currently serving as a WND intern at the U.N. in New York City, contributed to this article.