It’s time to declare energy to be a human right.
Without energy, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world.
Energy is a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet 1.5 billion people still have no access to electricity. This is unacceptable.
But progress is being made. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, announced that 2012 has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.
For those of us who have been fighting energy poverty, this is a big deal. In fact, this is a big deal for anyone and everyone who cares about clean water, food security, women’s empowerment, healthcare, education, poverty alleviation, and the protection of our global ecosystem, for energy access is a prerequisite for all of the above.
For far too long, the role of energy in meeting basic human needs had been overlooked by the international development community. Energy access was not included as a Millennium Development Goal when the MDGs were first announced by the U.N. in the year 2000. Ever since then, however, there has been a growing consensus that none of the MDGs can be achieved without access to modern energy services. And now, with the declaration of the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the United Nations has elevated the importance of energy access to the highest level of political discourse. The U.N. Secretary General is calling upon governments of the world, along with the private sector and civil society, to join forces in a global campaign to end energy poverty by the year 2030.
The UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is focused on three mutually reinforcing goals: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
I am happy to see this campaign get underway. But we can do more. We can assign legal status to the notion of energy as a human right. We can make it official!
On what grounds, then, can access to energy be considered a human right, and secondly, to what extent might a human rights platform help to accelerate progress towards the goal of universal energy access?
To find justification for the concept of energy as a human right, one need look no further than to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has its roots in the same process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In 1945, the newly established United Nations began drafting a “Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man”, which was split early on into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights and a convention containing binding commitments. The former evolved into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was adopted on December 10,1948.
Drafting on the convention continued, but due to ongoing differences among member states on the relative importance of “negative” civil and political rights versus “positive” economic, social, and cultural rights, the convention was eventually split into two separate documents: 1) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 2) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both drafts were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted on December 16, 1966. As of July 2011, the Covenant had 160 parties.
A quick review of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reveals just how essential energy access is to a wide range of socio-economic goals upheld by the ICESCR. Article 11 of the Covenant, for example, lists a number of rights that are essential to achieve a decent standard of living, including access to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement in living conditions”. Article 12 confers the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant establish the right to work, while Article 13 establishes the right to education.
While not identified as such, it may be argued that the right of access to modern energy is implicitly conferred by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as it is essential to the fulfillment of many if not most of the articles contained therein. This is precisely the case with the Millennium Development Goals: access to energy, though not included itself, is an absolute prerequisite for achieving each and every one of the MDGs.
With the launching of the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the timing could not be better for the assigning of legal status to the right of access to modern energy services. Doing so would impose obligations on States, both at the national and international level. A human rights approach to energy access would also help to mobilize the entire structure of the UN human rights apparatus, and empower organizations fighting for rights in other sectors to champion energy access as a key component of their respective agendas.
Let’s take women’s rights, for example, which are not only the focus of Millennium Development Goal No. 3 (“promote gender equality and empower women”) but which are also embodied in a number of international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.
The Convention provides the basis for achieving equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life as well as in the areas of education, health and employment. According to Article 3 of the Convention, “States Parties shall take in all fields, in particular the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measure, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women.”
In light of the above, the question is: how will women’s rights ever be safeguarded if they are the ones who have to walk miles every day to fetch water and fuel? Or inhale the noxious fumes from indoor cooking fires and kerosene lamps? Or give birth in the dark?
Women surely bear the greatest burden when it comes to energy poverty, and unless and until modern energy services are made available to them, women—especially those in rural areas—will continue to suffer from gross inequalities in their health, education, and economic opportunity.
Water is another issue that is tightly interwoven with that of energy, but in terms of rights, water has made greater progress. In fact, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right. In adopting the resolution, the UN General Assembly expressed deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water, and called upon member states and international organizations to help poorer countries scale up efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.
And yet, access to clean water itself depends upon energy. For example, the MDG target of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water will require one million electric pumps. Many types of water purification systems also require electricity to operate. So in the final analysis, the right to clean water—which underpins a number of other social and economic human rights—is itself dependent upon having access to modern forms of energy.
The same argument can be extended to other sectors as well. Healthcare is an obvious one. Without access to energy, especially electricity, it is not possible to store vaccines and other vital medicines, or operate a modern healthcare facility. The concept of health as a human right has made great strides in recent years, and is now championed by a growing number of visionary leaders such as Dr. Paul Farmer, who recognizes and has publicly spoken out on the critical importance of modern energy in delivering healthcare services to the poor.
The list goes on and on. Whether it be in terms of gender equality, clean water, healthcare, or any number of other priorities not discussed here (such as food security, poverty alleviation, or protection of the environment), energy access—or the lack thereof—invariably factors into the equation. Since all the Millennium Development Goals, and many of the rights upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ultimately depend upon having access to modern forms of energy, it is time that we declare energy itself to be a human right.
In light of the fact that 2012 has just been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, I cannot think of a better way to strengthen the resolve of the global development community in its efforts to achieve universal energy access.
A human rights platform would provide a strong moral basis as well as an authoritative legal structure by which to pressure governments to provide basic energy services to their people, especially those living in rural and remote regions. It’s not just about investing government resources, which in the developing world can be quite limited; it’s about creating an enabling environment—in terms of laws, policies, and regulatory frameworks—that will encourage creative partnerships between local governments, civil society, and the private sector to increase energy access for the poor.
Energy is essential for life. It is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. And it is essential for safeguarding a broad range of basic human rights. The right of access to energy is, in fact, implicitly conferred by a number of international treaties and conventions, but now the time has come to make such an assumption explicit and formally declare—with the full backing and authority of the United Nations—that access to modern energy is, and shall henceforth be deemed, a fundamental human right.