Human Rights: Who Decides?

The past two days I had the opportunity to get knee deep in water at a Right to Water conference in Syracuse NY. While there is so much that I could sit and write about regarding water, water, rights, women and water, I won’t. Mostly because it would take forever. But you should ask me about it (seriously. ask). There is one thing that really resonated with me as a place where the discussion about the right to water clearly demonstrated the intersections of race and human rights. One presenter, Rocio Magana, spoke about criminalizing water.

Before I summarize her main points, I want to throw out some ideas about the right to water, the right of water, and water rights. The right to water is often framed in a human rights discussion — basically that all humans have a right to access to clean water because it is necessary to live. The right of water is more of an ecological approach, talking about the respect that water deserves and thus it should be clean. Water rights include things like rights to fish in streams, ownership of water etc.
Ok so back to Rocio. Her presentation focused on the case of a man being taken to court in Las Vegas for littering in a national park. What was he found to be littering? Gallon jugs of water he was leaving for migrants trying to cross the Sonara Desert just over the border from Mexico. The man is just one of the many volunteers and organizations that work to provide water for these migrants. Thousands of migrants die of dehydration, heat stroke, and other heat related illnesses when trying to cross the desert. These group function on the principle that no one should be denied water regardless of where they come from or whether they are legal immigrants or not.
Obviously, border patrol and other civilian border control groups are not a fan of these groups. The migrants are illegally crossing the border in the United States and should not be aided in any way.
So here are my questions for you: Where should humanitarian aid stop? We are talking about people dying in this country — so many that they can’t even collect them all from the desert. Does anyone deserve to die of thirst? Yes they are crossing illegally, but once they are here, I think they should be treated as citizens and given the right to water. No one should be denied that right. To me, it is the same as seeing that someone is starving, having plenty of food in front of you, and not giving her any of your food. It is consciously depriving someone of what they need to survive, and who are we to deny someone that? Doesn’t that makes us akin to murderers?
The water being handed out is free, it comes straight from a tap (no bottled water here!!!) and the empty jugs are picked up and recycled in most cases. The water jugs are placed along trails that are thought to be frequented by migrants. This is not a program where the volunteer stand along the trail to hand out water, like at a race. The jugs are left in certain areas for migrants to come across. This is why the only charge that can stick is a littering charge, and the groups are using that charge to call into question the definition of garbage (is laying out something that would sustain life really the same as throwing garbage out?) and to come out in greater numbers.
If we define water as a human right, how can we deny the right to water to a group of people — specifically one race of people? It seems to me that this borders on the realm of eugenics. One race is denied a basic human right with the intention that they would die without it. I realize that may be going a little far, but I think its important to think about this in that framework of human rights. Who deserves the basic human rights and who does not? and who gets to decide?
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One Response to Human Rights: Who Decides?

  1. Steph says:

    I absolutely agree with you….it is the borderline of eugenics…and it's certainly racism. I am not all swayed by any potential argument that since these people come "illegally", they don't deserve water. Borders and citizenship – and therefore the legality of being in a country – are arbitrary. They are social constructions, just as much as race and gender. To me, that means they are worthy of being challenged. An interesting book that I read for class is Unruly Immigrants – which is technically about South Asian immigrants, but it deals with some of these broader issues about citizenship. It offers some academic support to my statement that borders are arbitrary and it argues for a broader framework of human rights that goes beyond citizenship.

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