Aftermath of the UN visit to Detroit regarding water and housing

Posted October 20th, 2014  |  News  |  Press Releases

UPDATE (Feb 7, 2015): Check out this video documenting the recent UN visit regarding the water shutoffs in Detroit, produced by one of the UN special rapporteurs that visited Detroit last October.


Two special rapporteurs from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke at a press conference yesterday, at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel in Detroit, about the need for all levels of government to step up in their defense of human rights.

PIC_0708De Albuquerque and Farha clapping in support of residents’ testimony at the Sunday town hall meeting. (Photo: Dr. Jose’ Cuello)

Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteurs on the rights to safe drinking water/sanitation and adequate housing, respectively, both spoke to multiple press organizations, concerned civil service groups, and citizens about the continuing water shutoffs in Detroit and how they also affect the housing situation of citizens in the city. Both condemned the city’s actions as a violation of human rights, stating that the shutoffs primarily affect low-income African-Americans. Furthermore, without water there are increased health risks that can easily be avoided by not shutting off water access.

The UN rapporteurs also stated that the United States is bound by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that humans have the right to an adequate standard of living. This includes municipalities that are under emergency management, as Detroit has been.

“If the city does not have the capacity, then others have to step in because the US government, at the federal level, undertook certain human rights obligations…” stated de Albuquerque.

The rapporteurs stated that for every dollar spent on allowing access to clean water, municipalities save $9 in health and productivity costs.

During their visit to Detroit, the UN rapporteurs found a level of retrogression not seen in their visits to other localities facing similar problems with water and housing. They also stated that nobody in the city is asking for free water- citizens understand they must contribute to the water system, but the water and sanitation costs are rapidly rising and wildly fluctuating. This is due to rising rates passed on to customers to deal with aging infrastructure, declining population levels in the city, and rising unemployment.

There was also a high number of instances in which residents had paid their water bills but were shut off anyways and had no way to contest their cases.

“We think that this lack of information and the lack of due process, in the way some of the disconnections have been taken, leads to fear,” stated de Albuquerque.

The issue of industrial/commercial sites that are delinquent and haven’t had their water shut off was also raised during the question session following the press conference. The UN rapporteurs stated that other municipalities that are poorer than Detroit have risen from similar situations by charging commercial/heavy users more for their increased water consumption.

“The way I view democracy… it is a precious and fragile thing,” stated Farha. “…You need to figure out how you’re going to protect democracy.”

Farha and de Albuquerque both spoke to the need of civil service organizations such as the People’s Water Board to continue their work fighting shutoffs and abuses within the city. They also want to continue communications between themselves and the organizations involved with the human rights struggles in the city and the region.

The press conference took place after two days of the UN rapporteurs surveying the affected areas and meeting with citizens and civil service organizations.

For more on the press conference and to see all of the UN rapporteurs’ recommendations for local, state, and federal government and the full text of their press statement, click here.

Below is the video of the entire press conference, courtesy of Michigan Coalition for Human Rights board member Dr. Jose Cuello.

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Below is the video of the entire press conference, courtesy of MCHR board member Dr. Jose’ Cuello.

Live-tweets from the various events that the UN rapporteurs took place in this weekend can be viewed using the hashtag #UNinDetroit.

MCHR is a member of the People’s Water Board who were one of the main organizations responsible for organizing the UN visit to Detroit.