Institute for Human Rights and Business has recently published the draft report on Business, Human Rights and the Right to Water: Challenges, Dilemmas and Opportunities, Roundtable Consultative Report. The Reports attempts to ‘summarise the points of view of a group of individuals representing business, international organisations, and civil society who have contributed to issues pertaining to the right to water.’ In this way, it suggests that ‘business has three potential responsibilities concerning water: as a user or consumer as an enabler of access to water and as a provider or distributor of water.’ The Report further observes that:
Given that the human rights system in a State does not always function effectively, and the situation can worsen when a State cannot or does not fulfil its duties in this area, the role of business becomes directly relevant and important. While business does not have the legal obligation of States to protect and fulfil rights, under the framework put forward by the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, the baseline for all business is that it has the responsibility to respect human rights.
The Report identifies the following outstanding issues in relation to business’ responsibilities for right to water:
What is the scope of a company’s responsibility to respect the human right to water?
Does this responsibility extend to providing infrastructure – or water – to communities where it operates?
If a company is a water service provider, does it extend only to its customers?
Does business have a role, or should business have a role, in providing water to the most marginalised communities, who cannot or will not pay on principle?
Does the corporate responsibility to respect human rights change when a company operates in a country where an overwhelmingly large proportion of the population lives below the poverty line?
Do the responsibilities of business change if a State is unwilling or unable to provide water?
What is the advocacy role of business? Can a company be expected to act as a champion of the community, and lobby the government, encouraging it to fulfil its duty to protect, regardless of capacity?
What precisely should businesses be reporting in terms of water and human rights?
What are the implications of reporting in a closed society, where the right to information is not respected, and where there is limited, or no, political participation?
Is there a role for business in supporting citizens and communities to understand and demand their right to water be fulfilled (by state – ultimate duty bearer)?
Given the greater burden on women and girls in accessing water, is there special emphasis that should be placed on gender issues (particularly for service providers)?
These are all valid questions and hopefully a number of them can be consensually answered in the forthcoming years.