Of what use is a deradicalized human right to water?

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Since the human right to water began to receive institutional recognition and interpretation at both international and domestic levels, concerns have been raised that the water justice movement has allowed its demands to be deradicalized by focusing on 'rights talk'. This critique has focused particularly on explicit statements of compatibility between rights and commodification (through neoliberal models of water governance)-joining an ongoing critical legal studies debate over whether rights discourse ought to be avoided by social movements in favour of alternative approaches to securing social change. This article applies the insights of legal pluralism (that law is not monolithic and legal norms are continually re-constructed by a multiplicity of actors) to four case studies (South Africa, the United States of America, Ecuador and Bolivia) where social movements have relied on rights-based litigation and 'rights talk' to further their pursuit of water justice. An analysis of these case studies highlights that, despite the risk of deradicalization, rights-based activism can yield practical benefits and counter-hegemonic possibilities, including the articulation of more radical conceptions of the right to water; but the case studies also highlight the ongoing structural barriers to establishing community control over water governance in order to (re)claim the water commons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)231-260
Number of pages30
JournalHuman Rights Law Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2017
Externally publishedYes


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