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United Nations/United States: Rights Experts Criticize Conditions in Flint

(May 12, 2016) On May 3, 2016, three human rights experts from the United Nations called the contamination of the water supply in Flint, Michigan a human rights issue and called for swift action to correct the situation. They mentioned the potential long-term adverse effects on the children of the city and stated, “[t]he Flint case dramatically illustrates the suffering and difficulties that flow from failing to recognize that water is a human right, from failing to ensure that essential services are provided in a non-discriminatory manner, and from treating those who live in poverty in ways that exacerbate their plight.” (Press Release, Flint: ‘Not Just About Water, but Human Rights’ – UN Experts Remind Ahead of President Obama’s Visit (May 3, 2016), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website.)

Relevant Human Rights Documents

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a U. N. document, includes the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), art. 25(1), OHCHR website.) The Convention on the Rights of the Child elaborated that right to specifically include the “provision of … clean drinking-water.” (Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted Nov. 20, 1989, in force on Sept. 2, 1990), art. 24(2)(c), OHCHR website.) The United States has signed but not yet ratified this Convention. (Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard, OHCHR website (last visited May 9, 2016) (select “U.S.” from the drop-down list on the left, then select the Convention to see status.)

Statements Critical of the Flint Situation

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, pointed out the relationship between government oversight, race, and socio-economic status in the Flint situation, stating:

Decisions would never have been made in the high-handed and cavalier manner that occurred in Flint if the affected population group was well-off or overwhelmingly white. … Elected officials would have been much more careful, there would have been a timely response to complaints rather than summary dismissals of concerns, and official accountability would have been insisted upon much sooner. (Id.)

Of Flint residents, 41.5% live below the poverty line and 56.6% are African-Americans. (Id.)

Léo Heller, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, also took note of the economic issues for the residents in addition to the problem of the hazardous quality, commenting that they “are confronted with one of the most expensive water and sanitation systems in the US, which has led to many thousands of them receiving water shutoff notices in 2015 because they could not afford their bills.” (Id.)

Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, commented that the people most affected by the crisis are “an already vulnerable group.” She added that the “connections between the human right to adequate housing, the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and the right to life” are deep and that “[p]ersistently high water and sewerage rates cause housing affordability issues and may expose the most vulnerable residents to homelessness when they can no longer afford their bills.” (Id.)

Court Cases

A number of legal steps have been taken to hold accountable those officials responsible for the poor water quality in Flint and for the 20 months that were allowed to lapse between when the water supply was changed to an unhealthy source and when an emergency situation was declared by the state of Michigan. According to David Leyton, a prosecutor in Genesee County, the county that includes Flint, a judge has permitted criminal charges to be filed against two state environmental officials and the man in charge of the Flint water treatment plant. (Brittany Felder, UN Rights Experts Call for Action to Address Flint Water Crisis, PAPER CHASE (May 3, 2016).) The city of Flint itself intends to sue the state of Michigan to recover funds to protect itself against lawsuits from Flint residents, and several class action suits have been filed on behalf of those living in Flint, including one particularly to benefit the children of the city. (Id.)

In January 2016, a suit was filed in federal district court by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nongovernmental organization, requesting that the Flint lead water pipes be replaced. The same month, the state of Michigan appointed a Special Counsel to assist in investigating the contamination problem. (Id.)