Catarina de Albuquerque is an award-winning lawyer and human rights activist, celebrated for her involvement in the field of sanitation and water. She was the first United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, and worked for the recognition of water and sanitation as human rights. After receiving recognition from the UN General Assembly, she ensured the implementation of these rights via the creation of a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water and sanitation while working for the UN partnership, Sanitation and Water for All (SWA).
Catarina de Albuquerque served as a diplomat for the Government of Portugal for over a decade, before subsequently working as an independent expert for the Swiss Development Agency, the European Commission, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She also chaired the negotiations on the Optional Protocol to International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights from 2004 to 2008. This protocol allows people to bring complaints to the UN, in cases of alleged violations of economic, social and cultural rights by UN member states.
In 2008, the Human Rights Council named de Albuquerque as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. She served two terms in this important role and was instrumental to the UN General Assembly’s recognition of access to water and sanitation as human rights in 2010. To recognise her efforts in the field, she received many distinctions. Notably, she was awarded both the Human Rights Golden Medal by the Portuguese Parliament and the Order of Merit by the President of Portugal in 2009. Additionally, she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and won the 2016 International Water Association’s Global Water Award. While receiving the latter, she shared how her experiences at a young age impacted her career path : “As a teenager I did volunteer work in the then-existing Lisbon slums. I was profoundly disturbed by the injustices and inequalities I saw. Since then, I felt that I wanted to contribute to changing the world and the underlying causes of the injustices I saw.”
After completing her mandate as Special Rapporteur in 2014, de Albuquerque joined Sanitation and Water for All, a UN partnership. Her contributions resulted in the introduction of a 6th Sustainable Development Goal from the UN, dedicated specifically to water and sanitation. When SWA created its CEO position in 2018, de Albuquerque was the first to be chosen for this position. As a CEO, she promotes the elevation of political will for water and sanitation by Heads of State and Heads of Government.
Throughout her fruitful career, Catarina de Albuquerque has been an invited Professor in many academic institutions, including the University of Braga, the University of Coimbra, the American University’s Washington College of Law, and the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation. She has also served as a Senior Legal Adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law, an independent institution under the Portuguese Prosecutor General’s Office.