Martha Davis

Martha Davis

Professor Martha Davis is a Carr Center Fellow who teaches constitutional law, US human rights advocacy, and professional responsibility at Northeastern University. In 2015-2016, she held the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) at Lund University. She is also a member of the expert committee for HumanRight2Water, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization that advocates for water and human rights.

Professor Davis has written widely on human rights, women’s rights, and social justice issues, and is co-author of the first law school textbook focused on domestic human rights: Human Rights Advocacy in the United States (West, 3d ed. 2023). In celebration of Earth Day this April, we sat down with Professor Davis to learn more about her work in environmental human rights, water security, and the potential challenges to our human rights posed by climate change.

What are the biggest issues and challenges facing water security today—and how is water security connected to our human rights?

{ MD } In the United States, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in concerns about water quality, something that many of us have long taken for granted. Water unaffordability is also increasing. And some pockets of the US, particularly on Native American reservations, simply do not have ready access to potable water at all.

Some of these issues are the result of neglect. For decades, the federal government has been cutting back the assistance it provides to communities for maintenance of water infrastructure, and local governments have not been able to make up the difference. Now, with aging systems, we are paying the price. At the same time, dramatic weather events have increased flooding, which further stresses our water systems. These problems will not go away without some significant attention and investment. It goes without saying that the human right to water is fundamental to supporting the full range of rights–e.g., housing, food, civic participation, and so on. Recognition of water as a human right would obligate governments at all levels to take concrete steps to realize that right. 

“The federal government has been cutting back the assistance it provides to communities for maintenance of water infrastructure, and local governments have not been able to make up the difference.”

What can governments do to ensure water security for citizens? Will international or regional organizations need to take a larger role in ensuring citizens around the world have equal access to clean water?

{ MD } Water rights are necessarily implemented at the local level, and community participation is key to ensuring that water systems operate in ways that are effective at the community level. A national law will only go so far. It must be backed up by support for community-level initiatives to increase water access, taking into account social and cultural norms. When international or regional organizations are involved, they are often able to share creative new ideas and innovations for water access, but it is important that any new initiatives are sustainable by the community over the long term.

When the UN General Assembly voted to recognize the human right to water and sanitation in 2010, the United States abstained—the same as it did more recently for the right to a healthy environment. What does this mean for US citizens? How does this impact progress internationally when one country—a powerful one—will not abide by international norms and expectations?

{ MD } The US refusal to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation, and the human right to a healthy environment, is shameful. Unfortunately, this stance is consistent with the American attitude of exceptionalism, i.e., the idea that we are so unique and exemplary that we can stand outside of the global community. The US has been particularly resistant to recognition of economic, social, and cultural rights, like the right to water.  

But environmental issues like water security are not confined within national boundaries. This is an arena where the entire international community must work together to ensure that water is sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable for all. Human rights norms provide an important framework for that collaboration and coordination. We hurt ourselves and our children by rejecting that framework.  

Although the UN resolution to ensure people have access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is not legally binding across member states, many hope that its creation will push countries to enshrine these rights in their own constitutions or in regional treaties. Do you feel hopeful about this measure and its potential effectiveness? 

{ MD } Worldwide, there are a growing number of national and subnational constitutions that recognize the right to a healthy environment. In the US, New York State recently added a “Green Amendment” to its state constitution, giving New Yorkers an enforceable “right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” Similar amendments are being considered in several other states. Along the same lines, in Hawaii, a justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court recently opined that the state constitution’s due process clause protects the right to a “life-sustaining climate.” 

New measures like Green Amendments or new interpretations of due process rights are particularly important because they create a private cause of action that allows individuals to challenge governments and require that they take environmental issues seriously. Human rights norms provide an important backdrop to these developments, and also provide standards that can inform domestic courts as they enforce environmental rights.   

What issues could we expect to see within the next 10-15 years if we do not do more to recognize environmental rights as human rights? What must be done to ensure that these rights are protected, especially in the face of climate change? 

{ MD } Climate change is already affecting everyone to some degree, but it is not evenhanded. Rather, it exacerbates inequalities, with devastating results for communities and individuals that are already marginalized. Implementation of the human rights framework is key to addressing such consequences before they happen, or redressing them if needed. 

I would urge that citizens, nonprofits, regional organizations, and so on, focus on establishing legal structures that will shore up equality protections in the environmental arena. Such structures will also help ensure that environmental challenges are seen as occasions for collective action.    

flooding across the United StatesFlooding in a Houston neighborhood after Hurricane Ike (2017), severe flooding in Tennessee (2010), and sunny day tidal flooding in downtown Miami (2016).

Can you tell us a little about your work at the Carr Center, and what you hope to accomplish during your time with the Center?

{ MD } Earlier in this year, I completed work on the 3rd edition of my co-authored casebook, Human Rights Advocacy in the United States (West 2023). My co-authors are Risa Kaufman, Johanna Kalb, and Rachel Lopez, also a recent Carr Center Fellow. We hope that the book will encourage law schools to give greater attention to the ways in which US advocates can use human rights law in domestic settings.That’s an important way to combat US exceptionalism! 

In the water arena, I’ve been working on several issues relating to water affordability. One exciting development is that my work has contributed to the introduction of a bill in the Massachusetts State legislature that would require local utilities to collect and publish information on water shutoffs, payment plans, liens, and other issues, categorized by zip code. New Jersey enacted a similar law last year, and efforts to increase the transparency around water policies are growing nationwide. Access to this kind of information about policy implementation is critical to ensure water justice as rates increase and local governments confront other complications from climate change.

Photos of Martha Davis by Kathleen Dooher and David Leifer; flood images by Jill Carson, FEMA, and B137.