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United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Steps Up For Detroit

Canadian Activists Play Key Role

by Daniel Johnson

   The collapse of Detroit's economy took a turn for the worse this year as the City began a series of mass water cut offs targetting low income people behind on bills as water rates skyrocketted over a short period of time. 

  Earlier this year, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department deployed crews to cut access to water for about than 3,000 residents a each week, the plan being to eventually cut the taps off for over 150,000 people in order to balance their $118 million deficit and increase revenues in order to make the utility more attractive to potential corporate buyers as City Hall plans to privatize it in the near future. 

What makes this even more offensive is that while Detroit shuts off the water to people who are $150 in arrears, many Detroit media outlets have reported that businesses are held to an entirely different standard. Palmer Park Golf Club owed $200,000, Joe Louis Arena/Red Wings Hockey owed $80,000 and Ford Field $55,000, yet none of them are even the slightest bit at risk of having their water turned off. 

   But the tide is turning in Detroit. 

  Today the United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights stepped in, calling it a human rights violation and calling on the US to enforce the UN human right to water. According to the United Nations, “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 successful campaign calling for UN intervention was organized with a great deal of assistance from Canadian activists, especially Maude Barlow and the Council Of Canadians. 

    Maude Barlow's involvement was almost accidental. She was in Detroit as part of the Great Lakes Project,  which seeks to have the Great Lakes declared "a Lived Commons, a Public Trust and a Protected Bioregion", when the dire situation Detroit residents were facing came to her attention.

    The Council Of Canadians immediately became involved, through The Blue Planet Project, which is a global initiative by the Council of Canadians working with many international partners to achieve water justice based on the principle that water is a human right. 

    Working first to assist local activists in their own strategies to mobilize Detroit residents and existing activist groups including supporters from Occupy Detroit and Call 'Em Out, while simultaneously using it's international networks to bring the situation to the attention of activists around the world, the Blue Planet Project helped create the Detroit Water Brigade and began the complex process of lobbying the UN to intervene. 

Meanwhile, local direct action campaigners from Call 'Em Out and The Detroit Water Brigade distributed leaflets instructing people on turning their water back on and preventing it from being turned off. Instructions read: 

 “Step 1: If your water is off, have the neighborhood water person or a friend (not you) obtain a water key and turn it back on 1st. (If you expect your water to be turned off, go to step 2.)

“Step 2: Purchase ready mix cement from the hardware [store].

“Step 3: Fill lockbox pipe 3/4ths full with dry cement mix.

“Step 4: Add water to top off. Don’t use rocks because rocks can be sucked out.”


More Information: 

Detroit Water Brigade:                                                                             

Maude Barlow, Personal Blog, May 26, 2014:                

Council Of Canadians, Blue Planet Project Page:   

Blue Planet Project, Submission To UN High Commissioner For Human Rights, June 17, 2014:

United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights, Press Release, June 25, 2014: 

Maude Barlow, Submission From Blue Planet Project To The UN High Commissioner For Human Rights, June 17, 2014:                                              

Council Of Canadians, Press Release, June 25, 2014:

Slate Magazine, Detroit Resumes Cutting Off Water To 150,000 Residents, June 23, 2014:

Detroit Free Press, Detroit City Council Approves 8.7% Water Rate Increase, June 17, 2014:

Detroit Free Press, What We'd Lose Privatizing Detroit's Water System, April 6, 2014: Apartheid In Detroit, Water For Corporations Not People, June 17, 2014:

Free Detroit, Hey Detroit, Running Water Is A Human Right, June 2, 2014

Voice Of Detroit, Call Em Out Goes Back To War, Direct Action To Stop Water Shut Offs, June 1, 2014:                                                                                                   

Michigan Citizen, Detroit Water And Sewage Department: Water Not A Human Right, June 5, 2014:

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Topics: Governance

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Daniel Johnson (Daniel Johnson)
Regina Sask
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