Policy brief

The Free Flow Principles: Freedom of expression and the rights to water and sanitation

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20 Mar 2014


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Water is essential to the well-being of humankind. It is critical for sustainable development and a basic requirement for the functioning of all the world’s ecosystems. It is vitally important not only for the protection of human rights – such as the rights to life, health, dignity, a healthy environment, food and work – but also for securing social justice and for protecting cultural identity and diversity, equality and peace.

Although the rights to water and sanitation have been recognised as legally binding human rights under international law, significant work is required to ensure their realisation in practice at international, regional and national levels. Concentrated efforts are also needed to ensure a correct balance between the allocation of water for personal and domestic use and the use of water for the purposes of agriculture, energy production and industry. In addition, the availability of water resources must be considered in relation to sustainability and the protection of the environment, so that present and future generations may benefit from them.

The right to freedom of expression – the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds without frontiers – is a fundamental human right, necessary for individual self-fulfilment, self-realisation and autonomy and for the functioning of a democratic form of government. The right to freedom of expression is also an empowerment right: it allows people to claim other human rights, demand access to essential services and participate in decision-making affecting their lives. In short, freedom of expression is a key tool to the success of any efforts aiming at the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation.

These Principles recognise the positive relationship between the right to freedom of expression and information (freedom of expression) and the rights to water and sanitation. As such, they are founded on the following inter-connected aspects of the right to freedom of expression:  

  • The right to know:  Information empowers people to pursue their rights to water and sanitation. This aspect of the right obliges governments and other duty bearers to proactively inform the population about issues relating to water and sanitation, water-related resources and management. It is the basis for transparency, accountability and good governance in all water and sanitation-related matters. 
  • The right to speak: The freedom of the media and freedom of individuals to communicate information to the public is a key aspect of the right to speak. Individuals have the right to voice their or others’ opinions and discuss matters relating to their rights to water and sanitation. Media and digital technologies make it possible to seek, impart and disseminate information and to critically assess the conduct of a state with regard to these rights.   
  • The right to be heard: Individuals, human rights defenders, activists, independent civil society organisations, communities and groups must be able to participate in water and sanitation-related decision-making and to freely voice their concerns without fear of reprisals or discrimination. This aspect of the right also implies the adoption of special measures ensuring the right to freedom of expression for all people in society, especially women, vulnerable and marginalised populations, and those who are discriminated against on any protected grounds recognised in international law.

These Principles set out the minimum obligations of states and other duty bearers, including private entities, to protect and promote these rights. They seek to promote the free flow of information, transparency, accountability and good governance and civic engagement in related decision-making. As such, they apply to the water and sanitation sectors in a broad sense, covering water supply and sanitation, integrated water resources management and water for the purposes of the industry. 

We call on individuals and organisations working towards the realisation of the right to freedom of expression and/or the rights to water and sanitation around the world to endorse these Principles and promote them in their work. 

We also call on legislators, public officials, decision-makers, courts, public authorities, private bodies exercising public interest functions, and the private business sector, as well as development partners, media organisations and civil society, to bring these Principles into effect at all levels.


These Principles are part of ARTICLE 19’s International Standards Series, an ongoing effort to elaborate in greater detail the implications of freedom of expression in different thematic areas. Their development was motivated by a desire to encourage greater global consensus about the importance of the right to freedom of expression in the protection of economic, social and cultural rights.

These Principles are based on international law and standards, evolving state practice (as reflected, inter alia, in national laws and judgments of national courts), and the general principles of law recognised by the community of nations. In particular, they reaffirm the standards set out in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Rio Declaration) and in the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention). They also reaffirm standards drawn from international and comparative national practice, such as The Public’s Right to Know: Principles on Freedom of Information Legislation; The Johannesburg Principles on National Security and Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and The Tshwane Principles on National Security and the Right to Information.

These Principles are the result of a process of study, analysis and consultation, overseen by ARTICLE 19, drawing on extensive experience and work by  ARTICLE 19’s regional offices and partner organisations in many countries around the world. The process of developing these Principles included a meeting of experts on freedom of expression and the rights to water and sanitation in London on 20 and 21 February 2014. It also included broader discussion around the draft that formed the basis of the London meeting.