Do Detroit's water shutoffs violate international law? UN to investigate.

Two UN human rights officials will visit Detroit this weekend to investigate whether widespread water shutoffs in the city are a violation of international law.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
Detroit water activists (L to R) Tawana Petty, Priscilla Dziubek, and Lou Novak protest against the increase in water shutoffs for residential customers with unpaid bills in the city in July. The UN is sending two human rights investigators to Detroit this weekend to examine whether the shutoffs violate international law.

Two human rights experts from the United Nations plan to visit Detroit this weekend to investigate whether the city is violating international laws by disconnecting water service to thousands of homes belonging to people who haven't paid their utility bills, according to news reports.

The visit is coming in the wake of a letter sent to the UN Human Rights Council detailing potential human rights violations apparent in the water shutoffs. The letter – authored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan – argues that the shutoffs are unjustified because many of those affected can't afford to pay their bills. The letter also says that the shutoffs disproportionately affect Detroit’s African-American residents.

"In a city where nearly 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line," the letter reads, "thousands of residents are at risk of losing water service because they simply cannot afford to pay the bills. "

The water shutoffs have turned into a flashpoint of Detroit's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, which represents the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shut off water services to more than 27,000 customers in the first nine months of 2014, and the shutoffs triggered mass protests in the city over the summer when the DWSD accelerated the process.

"Without question, the disparate impact on African-Americans of DWSD’s massive shut-off campaign is in conflict with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), to which the United States is a party. Specifically, CERD article one (1), prohibits practices that have a racially discriminatory effect, regardless of intent," the letter adds.

Activist groups submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Office in June, and the office responded a week later, saying that the "disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights."

The UN wrote in June that "because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population ... According to international human rights law, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation."

The NAACP and ACLU letter added that Detroit residents have seen rate increases of nearly 120 percent over the past decade, due in part to the decline in the City’s population from nearly 2 million in the 1950s to fewer than 690,000 today.

"As rates increased, so did the number of people who could not afford water and sewer services," reads the letter.

In September, the judge presiding over Detroit's bankruptcy case ruled that he didn't have the authority to block the City of Detroit from cutting of the water services. While agreeing in part with the plaintiffs, the judge, Steven Rhodes, added that banning water shutoffs would be a blow to Detroit's finances that the city could not afford.

In the letter, the NAACP and the ACLU ask that the UN make a number of recommendations to the US and local government, including the immediate end to the water shutoffs and the restoration of water service to Detroit residents who had it terminated, opening an investigation into the disparate impact of DWSD practices, investigating the public health implications of the water shutoffs, and advise Detroit and other similarly situated cities on how they can use available funds to assist residents with water bills and make infrastructure improvements to the water system.

UN Special Rapporteurs Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha are scheduled to arrive in Detroit this weekend and visit neighborhoods in Detroit where water service has been disconnected. They will hold a press conference on Monday, according to a UN statement.

"Issues of affordability, non-discrimination and access to justice for affected groups are vital,” the experts said in the statement. “A response by local and federal authorities to the water shut-offs which is aligned with international human rights standards is crucial and would serve as inspiration to other cities around the world that are faced with similar challenges."

Ms. de Albuquerque tweeted earlier this month about this visit, saying that "water and housing are essential," and also inviting actor Mark Ruffalo – who had joined protests against the shut-offs over the summer – to join.

Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement, "We certainly welcome the special rapporteurs and United Nations’ probe in to this municipal mess, and we appreciate their willingness to look deeper in to what should have been a wholly avoidable situation for Detroit."

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