I just saw a very disturbing article describing how the French government has declared that access to the internet is a “human right:”

Access to the internet is a human right, claim France’s most senior lawmakers.

The web was ‘an essential tool for the liberty of communication and expression’, according to the Constitutional Council. (via Internet access is a fundamental human right, rules French court | Mail Online)

This is very disturbing because, in international law, definining something as a “human right” has specific implications, the major one being that governments are then required to ensure that all people have access to that right.

Do I really care about this from an internet perspective? No. But it does say alot about how the developed world views economic development, economic power, and the developing world.

A story of water

Years ago, when I was in grad school, I learned that water, specifically access to fresh water, had been defined by international consensus as a “human need” instead of a “human right.” The class in which I learned this (U.S. Water Law and Policy) discussed the politics of the issue and decided that considering water a human right would mean that all governments– and specifically the governments of the developed world– would require that they figure out ways to create access to fresh water for all people– specifically the people of the developing world. Defining it as a human need had much fewer consequences: it basically allowed governments to say “Hell, that’s important… you should probably do something about that.”

Basically, the governments of the developed world think that it’s just plain too damned expensive to care about those people. Oh, you could argue that it truely is too expensive, but that’s not really the case, there’s plenty of money, we just have to decide whether we want to spend it. We don’t.

This was years ago, and a large part of me thought (i.e. hoped) “there’s no way that’ll continue to be the case, how could we keep that view in a modern, civilized society.” I was wrong. The major powers of the world have still defined water as a human need, rather than a human right:

Twenty countries have officially challenged the Ministerial Declaration released Sunday at the close of the week-long World Water Forum because it defines water as a human need rather than as a human right.

Latin American states played a key role in gathering signatures on a counter-declaration that recognizes access to water and sanitation as a human right and commits to all necessary action for the progressive implementation of this right.

Countries that signed the counter-declaration are: Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia, Chad, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Panama, Paraguay, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Venezuela. Switzerland has declared its support although a formal signature is expected to take months to finalize.

The U.S. delegation, led by Daniel Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and sustainable development, took the position that “there is at present no internationally agreed right to water or human right to water, and there is no consensus on what such a right would encompass,” according to State Department spokesman Andy Laine. (via Access to Water: A Human Right or a Human Need?)

So, what does this say about the world?

France is notably absent from the list of contries that have signified that water should be a human right. The US had other arguments against it as well (read the article).

By designating internet access as a right, and water as a need, France (and, likely, the majority of the developed world) have once again placed easy economic development (which the internet makes possible) ahead of humanity.

Are we all comfortable prioritizing the world this way? While people in the developing world lack the resources to find fresh water for survival, we in the developed world would protect access to Google with some of our highest legislative powers?

And we wonder why so many look to the developed world as a symbol of excess, and even evil.

I’m sure that I’m making too much of this. There are, after all, very complicated proceedures that the international community would have to go through if water were declared a human right. There’s no understanding of the global cost, or consequences– and truely no proof that the developed world necessarily wants more influence from the G20 in this area. Furthermore, it is only France– in national court– that defined the internet as, in essence, more important than water.

Still, caveats considered, it seems that this is a pointer that there are some serious priority changes needed in our world. All the issues and complexities involved with defining water as a human right could be handled if we, the rich of the world, honestly cared enough to put our minds to it.