The paradox of framing water as a human right in the United States: An analysis of power and resistance

Sabrina Kozikis and Inga T. Winkler (2020)
Journal of Human Rights

Many communities across the US struggle to access clean and affordable water. Authors examine civil society responses relying on “water as a human right” through case studies in California, Michigan, and the Appalachian Mountains. This trend presents a paradox, given that socio-economic rights are not perceived as relevant for domestic policy and are even met with hostility in the US. Authors analyze this tension through the lens of different conceptions of power: power withinpower with, and power to that help us explain why advocates turn to this framing.

Authors find that many activists perceive the human rights framework as an alternative to the government, which they distrust. Engaging with human rights conveys a sense of universality, connectedness, and validation. Building on this validated sense of self-worth and their collective strength, using the human rights framework can provide communities with the power to act and hold governments accountable.

Sabrina Kozikis is a graduate from Columbia University’s Masters in Human Rights Studies program. Her research focused on domestic socio-economic human rights in the United States, including the human right to water. Currently, she works at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York City, applying a human rights lens to public health issues in the city.

Inga T. Winkler is a lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. She is an affiliate at the LawTransform, as well as the Columbia Water Center in the Earth Institute. Her publications include the first comprehensive monograph on the human right to water (The Human Right to Water: Significance, Legal Status and Implications for Water Allocation, 2012) and a range of articles dealing with the human rights to water and sanitation. From 2009 to 2014, she was the legal adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.

This research was supported by the Research Council of Norway and is an output of the LawTransform project “Elevating water rights to human rights: Has it strengthened marginalized people’s claim for water?”.

Photo credit: Cia Gould on Unsplash.

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