Three UN Special Rapporteurs – the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Leilani Farha, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque – have issued a warning to the City of Detroit: cutting off water to tens of thousands of households is a violation of  the human right to water and other international human rights, and may be a violation of the international rights treaties ratified by the United States. 

The appeal to the UN was launched by a group of American and Canadian organizations, concerned about the impending water shut-off to as many as 30,000 households over the next few months. Customers who have not paid their bills in over two months face being disconnected by the utility, and once their water is disconnected, the hurdles to regaining water are significant, including having to produce many legal and ownership documents for the property. In their report to the UN, the activists write, “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.”

The City of Detroit, which declared bankruptcy in 2013, is looking for ways to cut costs, and to diminish its debt burden. The City is straddled with $18 billion debt, of which the Detroit Water and Sewage Department is responsible for an estimated $5 billion. As the City considers the potential privatization of the service, activists suspect that the disconnections are an attempt to shed some of their low income customers to “sweeten the pot for a private investor.”  Some argue that the water disconnections are used as leverage to displace the poorest people in Detroit. “This is about dispossession of the people. These shutoffs are intended to drive people from their homes. Water is the wedge,” writes a local activist, pointing to  corporate customers, such as a local golf club and even the Joe Louis Arena, who despite having massive unpaid bills, are not facing disconnection. 

It is a disturbing sign of the times that the UN has to speak out against injustice in Detroit, and some will cringe at the mere notion of UN criticism of the US. Nevertheless, the fact the UN Special Rapporteurs felt compelled to speak up in this context is not only significant in that it raises the profile of this rights issue on the national and international stage, hopefully catalyzing policy improvements at the utility. But it also reminds us that every country – no matter how wealthy and “developed” – faces its share of inequality and unfairness. Should these water shut-offs be taking place in, say, Venezuela, American activists and politicians would be quick to point the finger and call out the government for their callous disrespect of human rights. Like in Caracas, the people of Detroit are protected by international human rights treaties, and these rights must be upheld. 

Photo credit: Kate Sumbler’s photo stream on Flickr

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