Tag Archives: Jorge Vinuales

Taxing Bottled Water to Link the Luxury to the Human Need

Image: LeeBrimelow

Image: LeeBrimelow

With the At the Waterline blog, I’m writing about water issues as I learn about them. Almost every day, I learn something new. It’s exciting, but it also makes me feel perpetually late to the party. Today I saw that people have been entering “Jorge Viñuales” into the blog’s search box, so I looked him up. That led me to a 13-month-old YouTube video entitled, “A Tax on Bottled Water: Jorge Viñuales at TEDx Zurich.”

In the video, Viñuales, a lawyer and law professor (see credentials below), suggests a small transactional tax on bottled water that would be used “(1) for the protection of the natural infrastructures that maintain the water cycle, i.e. wetlands, (2) for direct local water distribution and sanitation projects (e.g. for the coordination of inter-city projects), and (3) for research on water efficiency, decontamination and alternative techniques (e.g. exploitation of melting iced-water).”

Citing the $50 billion European bottled water market as an example, Viñuales says that a 3% tax could raise $1.5 billion (presumably annually). Viñuales acknowledges that some people think we all should stop drinking bottled water entirely, but he argues that “sermonizing” people is not the best way to effect environmental policy change. As such, he suggests what seems like a more practical step, in order “to link water as a luxury to a real problem … access to water as a human need.”

Whether bleeding bottled-water companies financially would work in practice, and do enough to fund programs to help those in immediate need as well as discover new or more efficient ways to get freshwater, are other questions — ones that a 12-minute TED talk can’t cover in any depth. Viñuales did mention, however, his work on a legal framework to manage freshwater resources trapped in ice (e.g., towing icebergs; extracting freshwater from icebergs is a serious subject of study).

Viñuales is a practicing lawyer, the Harold Samuel Professor of Law and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and a Visiting Professor of International Law at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, during the academic year 2013-2014. Two of Viñuales’ most recent books are Foreign Investment and the Environment in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Harnessing Foreign Investment to Promote Environmental Protection: Incentives and Safeguards (Cambridge University Press, 2013, co-edited with P.-M. Dupuy),

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Filed under Bottled Water, Events, Industry, Law, Oceans, Water Resources, Water Shortage

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights


The Future of Human Rights Forum, based in Geneva, Switzerland, marked International Human Rights Day, aka the 65th anniversary of the UN General Counsel’s adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a special event: its inaugural forum. The event is meant to bring together various experts, civil society organizations, journalists and members of the public to discuss innovation in response to issues of concern regarding human rights.

As a Geneva-based journalist learning about water and reIated environmental concerns, I attended the forum’s opening remarks and this morning’s discussion, entitled “Placing the Environment on the Human Rights Agenda.” It was interesting to hear the first speaker of the day drop a tantalizing tidbit in anticipation of the panel. John Pace, former head of the Research and Right to Development Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, referred to the relationship between environmental issues and human rights as “a bit of a hot potato for some of us.”

Listening to the panel discussion that followed, I could understand why the topic is controversial, and why it stands to remain so for some time. There is a lot of history behind human rights development and documentation, and finding the best ways to include environmental issues will be tricky. How central can environmental issues be to human rights in general? How do experts get the language right, when modifying documentation, to ensure clarity? Can the the concept of “ecocide” as a crime gain urgency behind a public mandate and become part of the law in more countries?

The panelists: moderator Nicola Spafford Furey, vice president of Earth Focus Foundation; Polly Higgins, chairwoman, Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative; Gonzalo Ovideo, senior advisor for social policy, International Union for Conservation of Nature; Jorge Vinuales, Harold Samuel Professor of Law and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge.

This blog is focused on water, which was not a main topic of the discussion, but it was used as an example that gives a sense of the scope of some of the issues discussed regarding the overlap of environment and human rights. Oviedo, echoed by Vinuales, mentioned two schools of thought: (1) people who want to protect humans from negative environmental impacts, such as toxic waste, and (2) people focused primarily on procedural environmental rights developed in the past 20 years (e.g., through the Rio Conventions).

“Something in the middle is missing,” Oviedo continued. “I think what is missing is a stronger, better way of understanding the way in which the environment is really at the bottom, is the basis of, human rights. Think of the right to water. Water comes from the function of ecosystems. If the ecosystems that ensure the cycle of water are lost, what are we going to do with the right to water? I feel we have the tools at hand today to make the environmental agenda stronger. We just have to use [them] in a more creative way.”

The focus of much of the discussion, as well as audience questions, was on Higgins’ area of expertise, the Eradicating Ecocide Environmental Initiative. It’s an intriguing idea, that destruction of ecosystems could become an international crime. In fact, it’s on the books in 10 countries, Higgins said. The term itself, first coined in a 1972 research paper, still seems little-known, but could be poised for greater fame. Read more about its history, existing laws, and more on the initiative website.

Image: The Future of Human Rights Forum

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Filed under Environment, Events, Human rights, Law, United Nations