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The Right to Food, Considered on the 50th
Anniversary of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights

(July 1998) This issue of Hunger Notes is dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR) and to the United Nations. The creation of a statement of rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations, which establishes means by which the nations of the world may take steps to protect these rights, together represent a fundamental step forward for mankind.

The development of the human rights system, which grew from the UNDHR, now provides a potent, but underused, alternative for combating world hunger. This anniversary, in our view, requires development professionals and institutions concerned with world hunger to learn and use the human rights approach to improve the food security of the over 800 million undernourished persons in the world today.

The rights approach enlists as allies in this effort the very people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition, as well as-- possibly not without a struggle!-- the states of which they are citizens.

The education and advocacy effort in this 50th Anniversary year seeks to bring back into focus and advance human rights objectives. As originally proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, this embodies:

a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

The international human rights system of norms, institutions and procedures to protect and promote human rights constitutes one of the three pillars of the UN Charter. Along with activities to protect peace and security, and to facilitate economic and social development, human rights are of growing value and potential benefit to the nutrition of all the world’s people in the 21st century.

International human rights is both a moral code and a world legal code.

It is a moral code, as it expresses, perhaps imperfectly, and in legal terms, the outline of what many hundreds of millions of people think is a basis for human relations. It is an expression, not the only one, of people's beliefs about how they should be considered and treated as human beings. These rights have been expressed and fought for over millennia, principally against their governments which have not been "of the people" but rather have been governments of conquest and of economic, military and political might directed against the powerless, those who have few, or no, rights.

It is also a world legal code, and this is also very important. The code consists of a number of conventions and other legal texts. Most of those conventions that are of relevance to nutrition have now been ratified by the majority of states. The situation with respect to five key treaties is summarized in the table accompanying the Marchione article. Ratification obliges the state to take steps to implement these conventions through legal and administrative measures to the maximum of their available resources. The quality of a state’s performance is judged by its progress toward meeting these human rights norms.

Translating these norms into political and practical goals for human and national development would link the international human rights system with national priority settings, resource allocation, planning and management. Omitting to do so basically means breaching international law for which states, in principle, can be held accountable. This monitoring and "calling to account" can and should be done by their citizens. The international human rights system of institutions and monitoring procedures, although not yet perfect, has been developed to supervise this and to provide for constructive dialogue with member states on any obstacles and opportunities for improved conduct.

To respect, protect, facilitate and as necessary, fulfill the food and nutritional needs of the global citizen and national citizens can be aided by international legally binding instruments if they are transformed into national legislation and corresponding administrative regulations. This will result in protection coming about not through charity or at the whims of political will, but in the form of responses to legitimate claims of rights that people have under international human rights law, including the rights to access to adequate food and to the conditions that will foster good nutrition throughout the life cycle.

In short, implemented human rights are powerful tools in the hunger fight, yet the international food and nutrition community has, with notable exceptions, hardly looked into the system. It is their obligation to learn it and see whether and how it could be of use to shape programs and strengthen advocacy, making states and all the agents within them more accountable in fulfilling their obligations to help improve the food and nutrition situation of their citizens.

As a step toward improved understanding, this issue directly addresses three common misunderstandings about the right to food:

  • A right to food implies that the very existence of hunger is a violation of human rights.
  • The concept of a right to food is too theoretical: It is food that is needed.
  • There is no need to establish a right to food. Rights make people lazy.

This issue illustrates how events leading up to this human rights anniversary make it especially significant to world hunger issues. Among these changes have been the global sea change brought about by the end of the Cold War, the rise of power of civil society and NGOs, and specific international agreements, particularly the World Food Summit at the end of 1996.

Arne Oshaug and Wenche Barth-Eide highlight the opportunities afforded in the follow-up to the World Food Summit. In elucidating the meaning of the right to food in commitment 7.4 in the 1996 Rome Declaration, actions are underway to clarify the obligation of states and the international community. This clarification, we think, will result in the understanding that states will be obliged to respect and protect peoples' resources and entitlements and to facilitate their efforts to overcome undernutrition. Only after these efforts have not met with success should states respond with government programs, such as food stamps, that are 'direct' feeding programs. The education and advocacy effort for food and the right to earn sufficient income to provide adequate nutrition, is, as Michael Windfuhr argues, that NGOs can contribute considerably to interpreting and advancing the obligations of states to realize food and nutrition rights of individuals under their jurisdiction. Uwe Kracht points out that the 1996 World Food Summit challenged the international community to give operational meaning to the human right to food.

Tom Marchione, in the article on nutrition practice after the Cold War, explains why the food and nutrition community now has special responsibility to look to the international human rights system for support. In part to take advantage of a liberalizing political environment, and in part because of the increasing need for protection of the individual in many parts of the world against adverse nutritional effects of such phenomena as rapid globalization, economic and trade liberalization, profit-driven food research, increased conflict, especially within states, and reduction of public resources.

It is embedded in the understanding of human rights, especially economic, social and cultural rights, that responses to food rights claims should not primarily be carried out through measures such as unsustainable feeding programs but rather by including people in the productive economic system, ideally at increasing levels of nutrition and income. The nutritionist and food security expert must know how rights strengthen entitlements of families to the resources and conditions they must have so nutrition rights can be achieved before resorting to direct government programs becomes necessary.

Ultimately under democratic states human rights will have free play. The ideal of creating communities that understand human rights, as described by Shulamith Koenig, will reshape the basis of life at the grassroots level and make the continuing existence of hunger an impossibility.

In conclusion, application of the right to food and nutrition as human rights is not an alternative to ongoing efforts to reduce hunger and improve nutritional conditions. Rather, a human rights perspective constitutes an added dimension to present practice, with admittedly important changes in planning, decision making, and implementation and monitoring.

That added dimension would transcend-- and redirect-- all food and nutrition-related development activities, rather than replacing them, and as such would enhance effectiveness in fighting hunger and malnutrition. Unlike the technical efforts to overcome hunger, rights imply accountability, not only of the international community, but also of the domestic community-- government organizations, private corporations, and non-governmental organizations. However, the strongest contribution of rights is that they provide universal norms across the entire spectrum of economic, political and social activity, within which disparate organizations can cooperate in forging a more decent world. A world that will be rid of hunger early in the 21st century, and a global culture befitting the dignity of the human race.

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