Unmuddying the Waters: Evaluating the Legal Basis of the Human Right to Water Under Treaty Law, Customary International Law, and the General Principles of Law

This article evaluates the existence of a freestanding, general human right to water under each of the three principal sources of international law: treaty, customary international law, and the general principles of law. To date, the right to water has been derived from treaty law, most prominently as part of the right to an adequate standard of living in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (as implied by General Comment 15 to the ICESCR). The potential importance of a non-treaty based right to water––as a matter of customary international law or a general principle of law––is that it would bind all states, including states that are not parties to treaties with right to water provisions. Therefore, this article evaluates the state practice and opinio juris elements of custom supporting a right to water. Recognizing the disputed nature of how these two elements generally interact to crystallize into a customary norm, the article considers the problem using two distinct methodological approaches: the sliding scale approach and the reflective equilibrium approach. Finally, the paper considers whether a right to water is supported by the general principles of law. Although the right to water is not directly created by the general principles of law, the principles can nevertheless be applied to develop states’ positive and negative obligations for water provision.