19 August 2017

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared sanitation a universal human right. This means that everyone, everywhere, has the right to a toilet[1].

Did you realise that through your last trip to the bathroom, you were actually exercising one of your fundamental human rights? Does this surprise you?

Consider how different your day would have been today had you not had access to a toilet at home, at school, or at work. For example, imagine having to get up before sunrise in order to find a deserted piece of land on which you felt safe enough to relieve yourself.

Globally, 1 billion people have no option but to defecate in the open, and a further 1.4 billion are forced to use an unsafe or unhygienic facility (WHO 2017). As a result, one in every ten deaths in India is linked to poor sanitation and hygiene (Koonan 2012).

Not only is access to safe sanitation, therefore, integral to the right to health and a clean environment, but it also evokes the concept of human dignity through the ability to manage one’s bodily functions (Klasing and Smaak 2017). And, human dignity is fundamental to the right to life (Koonan 2012). 


The right to sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to: “have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and social and culturally acceptable, and that provides privacy and dignity”. (UN General Assembly Resolution 70/169, December 2015).

The right to sanitation is not fulfilled therefore by the presence of a toilet of any kind, in any condition. It delineates a five-pillar criteria that sanitation services must meet in order to satisfy the right to sanitation. They must be:

  1. Available (near to households, schools, workplaces, health centres etc.)

  2. Accessible (to all, without discrimination)

  3. Affordable (should not exceed 5% of households’ incomes)

  4. Safe (free from heath hazards, and in locations that are safe for all users, e.g. where women feel safe from harassment and violence)

  5. Acceptable (culturally and socially, and must protect peoples’ privacy and dignity)

The right to sanitation is therefore highly intertwined with many other universal rights and is essential to the right to an adequate standard of living. In fact in many cases, sanitation provides the foundations upon which access to other rights can be built. A lack of access to sanitation can make the realisation of other rights (for example, the right to education) difficult: “there is a strong correlation between those who are not able to enjoy the rights to water and sanitation and those who also do not enjoy the rights to housing, food, education, and health” (Albuquerque 2012).



Despite the above, the explicit right to sanitation was only legally recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2015. Before this, sanitation was only implicitly acknowledged by other human rights resolutions.


– 1948 –

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Although there is no explicit mention of sanitation in this declaration, Article 25 states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.


– 1977 –

In 1977 (at the UN Water Conference), the right to water was recognised for the first time. Although this did not include the right to sanitation, it did mean that WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) issues were now being discussed on the global stage. The conference declared, “All peoples…have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs”.


– 1979 –

In 1979, the first mention of sanitation as a right appeared in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Article 14 of this convention ensured women the right “to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport, and communications”.


– 2010 –

Between 1979 and 2010, a number of other conferences and conventions referred to water and sanitation, however it was not until 2010 that, for the first time, the UN formally recognised the right to water and sanitation. The UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 declared, “Everyone has the right to a water and sanitation service that is physically accessible within, or in the immediate vicinity of the household, educational institution, workplace or health institution”. Later on in the same year, a second resolution (15/9) affirmed this right to water and sanitation as legally binding and part of international law.


– 2015 –

In 2015, the distinction between the right to water and the right to sanitation was first made. Before this, sanitation was only ever conceived in relation to the right to water. Resolution 70/169 (see above) recognises that the right to water and the right to sanitation, “while linked, are separate from one another and have distinct features” (UN 2015). This resolution was also made legally binding.

This landmark resolution coincided with the formation of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. In fact, the right to sanitation is one of only two human rights (the other being to gender equality) explicitly mentioned in the SDGs (Purvis 2015). The SDGs thus frame all future sanitation debate and action through a progressive, human rights lens.


If sanitation is now a fundamental human right, therefore, enshrined in international law, why are 2.4 billion people still without access to improved sanitation? And, who is being held responsible for this violation of rights?

Although, yes, the legally binding right to sanitation requires governments to ensure access to sanitation, the law acknowledges that finding the resources to reach 1/3 of the world’s population overnight is unachievable. Governments must, however, be able to demonstrate that they are doing everything within their power to improve access to sanitation, for everyone. This is called ‘progressive realisation’ (i.e. taking appropriate measures towards full realisation) (OHCHR 2008). Although the resources available to governments are taken into consideration, it is noted that a shortage of resources does not justify inaction (ibid.).


President Modi getting involved with the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), which aims to end open defecation in India by 2019.


The progressive realisation towards universal access to sanitation is not simply about building toilets.


The right to sanitation goes beyond the toilet at the point of use and is as concerned with other nodes in the sanitation cycle as it is the toilet. This includes the collection, transportation, treatment, disposal, and reuse of waste (Klasing and Smaak 2017; Koonan 2012). For example, using a pit latrine is only safe if the waste is then adequately treated. If that sewage is released untreated into the surrounding environment, it will contaminate drinking water supplies and endanger human health. We cannot see toilets as individual entities, therefore, but rather as one of a collection of services that, together, define safe sanitation.

Furthermore, the right to sanitation refers not only to the rights of toilets users, but also to the rights of sanitation workers and other individuals along the sanitation chain. The health, wellbeing, and dignity of those emptying toilets and collecting and treating waste must also be protected. In India, despite the practice having been made illegal, over 700,000 people belonging to the most marginalised castes are still engaged in manual scavenging (Koonan 2012). Manual scavenging is the hazardous cleaning and emptying of a latrine, or handling of excreta in any manner without protective gear. Manual scavenging is “incompatible with the fundamental right to life” (Koonan 2012). In governments’ progression towards a full realisation of the right to sanitation, the safety of sanitation workers must be addressed and the practice of manual scavenging ceased. It is apparent, therefore, that barriers to the realisation of the right to sanitation go beyond the availability of resources (Klasing and Smaak 2017). Other factors include caste, gender, and class amongst many (Koonan 2016). Non-discrimination is an overarching human rights principle that cross cuts all universal human rights, including the right to sanitation. Therefore, governments’ progressive realisation is not just about ensuring safe sanitation access to the greatest number of people; it is also about dedicating resources to overcoming these barriers and ensuring safe sanitation for hard-to-reach and marginalised populations.


Framing access to sanitation as a human right is a positive and effective tool for articulating the importance of clean, safe sanitation. Inequalities in access to sanitation are no longer only morally unacceptable, but they are also prohibited by international law (Albuquerque 2012).

The right to sanitation and its criteria (i.e. availability, accessibility, affordability, safety, and acceptability) provide a framework within which actors can plan and work (ibid).

Everyone, everywhere should have access to clean, safe sanitation at every point along the waste disposal chain.


Help us to provide access to clean, safe sanitation services to communities in India. Visit our website today to donate:

How many of your friends and family know that having access to a toilet is a universal human right? Take to social media using the hashtags #RightToSanitation and #SanitationFirst. Don’t forget to tag us @SanFirstUK

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[1] And its accompanying system of collection, transport, treatment, disposal and reuse of human waste, and associated hygiene.


Albuquerque, C. (2012) On the right track: food practices in realising the rights to water and sanitation, United Nations Special Rapporteur
Calaguas, B. (1999) ‘The right to water, sanitation, and hygiene and the human rights-based approach to development’, WaterAid Briefing Paper.
Human Rights Watch (2017) ‘Sanitation as Global Right: Address Barriers, Ensure Pricacy, Dignty’, (WWW) Washington DC: Human Rights Watch (
Klasing. A. and A. Smaak (2017) ‘Going to the toilet when you want: Sanitation as a human right’ (WWW) Washington DC: Human Rights Watch (
Koonan, S. (2012) ‘Realising the right to sanitation in rural areas: Towards a new framwork’, IELRC Policy Paper 03.
Koonan, S. (2015) ‘Swachh Bharat: Beyond charity and symbolism to legal rights and duties’, Kafila
OHCHR (2008) Frequently asked questions on economic, social, and cultural rights, Geneva: United Nations.
Purvis, K. (2015) ‘Water is a human right…but I can have a price’ (WWW) London: The Guardian (
UN Water (2014) ‘The human right to water and sanitation’ (WWW) 9
UNW-DPAC (n.d.) The human right to water and sanitation: milestones, Zaragoza: UNW-DPAC.

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