Privatizing the Provision of Water: The Human Right to Water in Investment-Treaty Arbitration
Ashley Otilia Nemeth
Despite its critical importance, the fulfillment of the human right to water is far from the reality for many today. One in three people do not have access to safe drinking water and more than half of the world’s population does not have access to safe sanitation. Achieving the international community’s commitment of universal access to safe water and sanitation by 2030 would cost states approximately$150 billion per year. Meeting those funding needs inevitably entails private, and often foreign, investment. When investments do not go as planned, foreign investors may turn to international arbitration for relief. While intended to protect investments, this legal regime has allowed investors to challenge regulatory measures that further human rights and to wield undue power over states. This Note analyzes investment-treaty disputes involving drinking water to understand how states have invoked, and tribunals have considered, the human right to water. The cases show an important evolution on the part of tribunals. Nevertheless, almost all of the tribunals fall short of integrating the human right to water in their analysis of substantive treaty claims. Interestingly, the cases also reveal that, despite invoking human rights defenses, states engage in actions that are difficult to justify as furthering the right to water. In turn, this Note argues that the “fair and equitable treatment” standard can and should include relevant human rights law as part of “investors’ legitimate expectations.” Such an integration creates opportunities for accountability on both sides of the ledger: Investors are expected to engage in human rights legal due diligence, and states are taken to task when they invoke human rights in a perfunctory fashion. The fair and equitable treatment standard presents an opportunity to expand fairness and equity in international arbitration not only for the disputing parties, but also for the people who stand to lose from their actions.