The Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food: A Tool for Civil Society

by Michael Windfuhr

Michael Windfuhr

The Right to Adequate Food is a fundamental human right firmly established in international law. This right flows from the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966. The Right to Adequate Food has been reaffirmed in many pronouncements of the international community over the last 50 years. It is the UDHR which clarifies that the realization of all human rights– civil, cultural, economic, political and social– is needed to guarantee a life in dignity for all members of the human family. A life in dignity requires that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing…” (Article 25, UDHR).

The commitment of states to the indivisibility of all human rights has been renewed with the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights of 1993. Economic, social and cultural rights (ESC Rights) and within them the Right to Adequate Food have also been supported and strengthened by the series of international conferences in this decade: the Copenhagen Declaration and Program of Action of the World Summit for Social Development of 1995, the Beijing Conference on Women of 1995, and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action of 1996. All these documents come to similar conclusions with respect to implementing the Right to Adequate Food: societies today possess sufficient resources, organizational capability and technology– hence the capacity– to achieve this objective. It is this assessment, and the renewed commitment of governments, that has led non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements to increasingly make use of the right to food approach.

The use of the rights approach to hunger and malnutrition by NGO and social movements has also increased considerably in recent years, because ESC rights generally have been recognized more precisely than in many decades before (although they have also been neglected by states in their human rights work and also within the UN human rights system). Both at the national and international level, ESC rights have been discriminated against, relative to political and social rights.

A more precise legal interpretation of ESC rights, which started with the installment of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1987, better support by the international law community, and a new commitment by states to implementation of ESC rights after the end of the Cold War, have all helped to change the situation considerably in the last years. Much remains to be done nationally and internationally to end the neglect of ESC rights, but it is now recognized that the indivisibility of all human rights is high on the agenda.

The Rome Declaration and the Plan of Action adopted by the World Food Summit (WFS) offer a milestone opportunity for a much better implementation of the right to food.

The WFS final documents are outspoken in placing the right to food at the very top of the international agenda. The documents contain a strong commitment to the right to food. They reaffirm strongly that the right to food is firmly established as a fundamental human right in international law. In addition, the documents emphasize the need to further elaborate the Right to Food in order to facilitate its implementation. Commitment 7, objective 7.4 of the Plan of Action invites the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in consultation with relevant treaty bodies, and in collaboration with relevant specialized agencies and programs of the UN system and appropriate intergovernmental mechanisms, to better define the rights related to food in Article 11 of the Covenant [on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights] and “to propose ways to implement and realize these rights as a means of achieving the commitments and objectives of the World Food Summit, taking into account the possibility of formulating voluntary guidelines for food security for all.”

NGO action in the follow-up to the World Food Summit has taken this objective very seriously. Many NGOs are well aware that working for the right to food means a constant effort to explain the basic concept of ESC rights and requires an ongoing process of “unlearning” the reductionist human rights concept, which focuses exclusively on civil and political rights, as well as unlearning reductionist concepts of food security, which focus mostly on agricultural production and productivity.

Realizing Objective 7.4 of the Plan of Action: NGO Action Toward New International Instruments for the Implementation of the Right to Adequate Food

The leading states behind the acceptance of the aims in objective 7.4 in the texts of Rome were the Latin American states (most notably Chile and Venezuela), who had been very dissatisfied with the initial version of the texts in early 1996. In June, 1996 the Latin American states decided at their preparatory conference in Asunción, Paraguay that the WFS Plan of Action should contain the idea of developing a Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food, once the conference was over. This was done so that the respective references in the text would become more than non-binding programmatic statements.

In July, 1996 the government of Venezuela co-sponsored an expert conference in Caracas in order to discuss the possible content of such a code. The experts invited were not only government representatives but also staff of UN organizations, international lawyers, and FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) and World Alliance on Nutrition and Human Rights (WANAHR) as NGOs. The report of this conference was made available to WFS delegations in Rome.

The final text does not literally refer to a code of conduct, but fixes under objective 7.4 three concrete aims for an improved implementation of the right to food. Under the guidance of the UN High Commissioner, and in cooperation with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the following goals are to be achieved: 1) a strict legal clarification of the content of the right to food, 2) the development of new instruments on improved implementation of the right to food, and 3) the formulation of additional “voluntary guidelines” to promote this implementation.

The idea of a code of conduct on the right to food was embraced by regional and international NGOs and became one of their main lobby aims for the Rome summit. There are two functions of such a code that are seen as particularly important by NGOs: First, the Code of Conduct will reduce the existing weaknesses in the human rights instruments recognizing the right to adequate food. One of these weaknesses is the lack of a precise description both of its legal content and the corresponding states obligations in the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Second, there are legal gaps with respect to the impact of intergovernmental policies (e.g., the structural adjustment programs of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)), or of private actors (e.g., transnational corporations) on the right to adequate food. Both aims could be approached in a first step by formulating a Code of Conduct on the Right to Food. The Code of Conduct was therefore put up in Rome as one of two key demands by the plenary of the parallel NGO summit. In their final political statement, “Profit for Few or Food for All. Food Sovereignty and Security to Eliminate the Globalization of Hunger,” the NGOs in Rome concluded under point 6:

“International law must guarantee the right to food, ensuring that food sovereignty takes precedence over macro-economic policies and trade liberalisation.[…]”

6.3 “Negotiations should be carried out to develop more effective instruments to implement the right to food. These instruments should include: A Code of Conduct to govern the activities of those involved in achieving the Right to Food including national and international institutions as well as private actors, such as multinational corporations [….].”

A few NGOs were directed by the NGO Forum to formulate such a code of conduct during 1997 and to have it discussed in an international NGO conference. A draft Code of Conduct of the NGOs has been available since the end of September, 1997. FIAN International and the World Alliance on Nutrition and Human Rights coordinated this draft, together with the Institut Jacques Maritain Internationale from Rome. In early May, 1997, more than 30 NGO representatives of international networks from all continents had assembled in Geneva in order to discuss the first draft. The venue was made available in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This international seminar amended the first draft and made it more precise. Several NGOs participated in the final editing. NGOs, as many as possible, are asked to endorse the idea of the Code.

The Code of Conduct as a Tool for Actors in the Civil Society

The objective of this process is to place the proposal of the Code of Conduct on the agendas of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the FAO Committee on Food Security (CFS). The NGOs behind this initiative have developed a two-pronged strategy for such a campaign:

An International Instrument shall be adopted by the states drawing on The International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food. The mandate for the preparation of such an instrument was given by the World Food Summit to the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Such a new International Instrument must therefore be adopted by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and subsequently by the Economic and Social Council of the UN. Due to the fact that improving the right to food was identified in Rome as one of the major tools for the implementation of the World Food Summit results in general, it is also important to get the support of the CFS for the adoption of such an international instrument. The support of states for the development of an international instrument drawing on the International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food can only be gained if the promotion and lobby work is done not only at the international level, but also at the national level. The states need to be confronted with the challenge of implementing the right to food and WFS objective 7.4 by their national civil society, including NGOs and social movements.

The Code of Conduct can be used, at the same time, as a tool for strengthening the understanding and implementation of the right to adequate food at the national level. It can be used as an education instrument:

a) for opening up a debate and a process with their own government, on how to implement better the right to adequate food at the national level. It can be used for national workshops to check the national legislation, weaknesses of administrative regulations and behavior, etc.;

b) for opening a debate between NGOs and inside the civil society about the right to adequate food. It shall be used by national NGOs to inform other NGOs and social movements about the ESC Rights in general and the right to adequate food in particular. It can be utilized to show how human rights, and human rights procedures and advocacy, can be used at the national and international level to better implement the right to adequate food and nutrition.

According to the strategy decision, as many NGOs as possible are now asked to endorse the idea of the Code. In 1999, an attempt was made by coordinated lobby work to place the proposal on the agendas of the FAO Committee on Food Security and the Human Rights Commission. In April, 1997 the FAO signed an agreement with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on cooperating in the follow up to the World Food Summit (objective 7.4). On Dec. 2, 1997, both sides held a first expert meeting in Geneva to clarify the task at hand. A second expert meeting was organized at the end of 1998. The NGOs cooperating in favor of the Code of Conduct will support and contribute to the work of the FAO and the OHCHR.

Further information including the text of the Code of Conduct (in several languages) and a tool kit for NGO action can be obtained at the international secretariat of FIAN: FIAN-International, PO Box: 10 22 43, D-69012 Heidelberg, Germany. Tel.: +49-6221-830620, Fax: +49-6221-830545, E-mail:

Michael Windfuhr is executive director of FoodFirst Information and Action Network-International (FIAN), which is an international human rights organization working for the implementation of the right to feed oneself. It was established in 1986 and currently has a membership base in 55 countries, and its own national sections and coordination in 20 countries.

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