Creation of Human Rights Communities as a Means to Fight Hunger and Malnutrition

Shulamith Koenig

This issue of Hunger Notes honors the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Analyzing 50 years of human rights treaties and subsequent commitments is an important responsibility for all human rights organizations and social justice activists.

What must still be done? I believe that there are three necessary steps.

The defense and promotion of economic, social, and cultural rights must involve a comprehensive approach to human rights, including the human right to food and sound nutrition. There must be a systemic analysis of the necessary conditions for the progressive realization to the human rights to food, housing, health care, education and work.

Those concerned about hunger, hunger activists, the nutrition community, private voluntary organizations and their supporters, the religious community, and others, need to discuss how to incorporate this human rights framework to take more decisive steps toward ending world hunger, and then take steps to do so.

On their side, those concerned with human rights, as presently considered, which in practice has meant those, such as Amnesty International, concerned with torture, false imprisonment, murder and other less serious but still very serious violations of political rights, such as denial of people’s right to vote, have to include in their framework a dialogue about the right to life considered in economic and social aspects, and consider its critical importance in developing a discourse to find new solutions to address old problems.

In doing this, we and they expand the range of activists that can improve human rights, including the right to adequate nutrition. A community dialogue on malnutrition and hunger and the means to escape them is both imperative and an unexplored opportunity. Much greater attention needs to be given to these issues by combining analysis and action from a much broader perspective.

The right to be free from life-afflicting hunger is the most fundamental and the most obviously universal of all human rights; for if this human right is not guaranteed all others are ipso facto made irrelevant. For this reason, it has always been high on the list of those cited in solemn declarations of political intent, yet it is still the most violated in practice. This human right is not realized in the case of the over 800 million clinically hungry people nor the 120 million malnourished children under the age of five.

Our current approach of charity/noblesse oblige, combined in practice with pursuit of foreign policy goals, has led to an insufficient response to the plight of those who are malnourished.

With respect to world treaties, in every one of these treaties and covenants, food, nutritious and life-building, has been acknowledged as an imperative foundation to sustain life in dignity. Yet these treaties and commitments have been tragically ignored. Feeding the needy is still viewed as a charity the world nobly hands out to the poor, the disadvantaged, and the hungry. Every single religious teaching speaks of “feeding the hungry” as a basic religious duty. Every religious institution follows this call in their own communities and in communities other than their own.

The problem is this. Despite the treaties, the good intentions, the proclaimed norms and works of charity, hunger has become a chronic condition for vast and growing numbers of human beings all over the world, not as the solemn obligation made by the international community of enforcing all human rights for all, the call proclaimed by the UN. Nutritious food, health care, adequate housing, proper education and work at livable wages are denied to vast numbers of people around the world in every continent.

Religious groups in spite of their proclaimed and actual commitment have not been able to do enough– an amount that does not reach even 10 percent of what needs to be done.

I do not want to deny the very real and necessary contribution of these social justice workers, righteous people who believe that “the material needs of my neighbors are my spiritual needs” in the words of a Lithuanian rabbi. Nonetheless, we, workers for social and economic justice, must now take the next step, and include the human rights framework in our action. This next step, I believe, will be for communities to learn about human rights as related to their daily concerns, making the connection to the struggles and aspirations of others, and joining in action against the severe violations their governments impose on human beings by not budgeting for “progressive realization” of economic, social and cultural rights. All the human rights of our neighbors must become our spiritual needs.

We are only beginning to take this next step. Activities around the 50th anniversary are introducing the idea of the unity of human rights to wider audiences. The efforts of Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations, strongly supported by economic human rights activists to mainstreaming human rights throughout the U.N. system has resulted, for example, in a recent UNDP policy paper that calls on all specialized agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental groups to mainstream human rights and integrate human rights in sustainable human development, regarding the right to food, health, habitat and economic security. It emphasizes the legal obligation of all states and of UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, ILO, and UNDP “to promote the progressive realization” of these rights through development.

I would like to describe another implementation of this human rights approach. It was developed by the People’s Decade for Human Rights Education (PDHRE). PDHRE, especially its affiliate in Rosario, Argentina, has undertaken to mark the “50th Anniversary and Beyond”, with a historic initiative whereby a whole community, its leaders, elected officials, and civil society examine traditional beliefs, its collective memory, and its aspirations as related to human rights and move into the 21st century as a “Human Rights Community.”

In a ceremony held in June, 1997, the City of Rosario, its elected leadership and representatives of all its community groups, has undertaken to develop a sustainable human rights community.

What is a human rights community? A human rights community is one in which its members, from policymakers to ordinary citizens, learn about human rights obligations, relate human rights norms to their own immediate and practical concerns, and commit themselves to their application. They make a joint commitment to enter into a society-wide dialogue for the purpose of developing the guidelines of their “Human Rights Community.”

Rosario, population 1.2 million, is a middle class community. However, with downsizing and the closing of work places, it is having to face poverty and widespread unemployment as a “new” way of life. As a result, malnutrition has taken its toll on many families’ health in general, and particularly on children’s ability to actively participate in their schools. Specific concerns about malnutrition, poverty and work are ways in which the people of Rosario can be engaged in learning about human rights as related to their daily lives and concerns.

All organizations and their members, public and private, after learning about human rights, will join to monitor human rights in the community, document violations, and share their findings and observations in a newsletter to be disseminated to the general public. This process will ideally make of each member of the community a human rights “educator” and a human rights “defender.”

As the citizens of Rosario view their lives from a human rights perspective, they will be empowered to develop the methodology to ensure that, in the future, all decisions, laws, policies, and communal relationships, and thus resource allocations within the community, will be informed by human rights norms and standards.

Like many other countries, Argentina has ratified every single human rights treaty, yet people know practically nothing about them or the fact that these international human rights laws must be enforced in their country. Thus, a basic premise of human rights education is the recognition that imposed ignorance is a human rights violation and must be redressed by informing the nation’s citizens of their rights, agreed to by their government.

Rosario provides a unique opportunity for people to engage collectively in claiming their human rights. Similar efforts to create inclusive human rights communities are being undertaken in Khies, Senegal, in Mombai, India and in the nation of Mali.

People, especially those in most need of recognition of their human rights, do not know that they can claim these rights, much less establish procedures for advocacy and actions for social and economic justice. Many people struggle for justice which they inherently understand as the way to be in the world in dignity with one another, yet do not know that over the last 50 years, their hunger for a just world has been enunciated in a comprehensive, holistic body of norms and standards that powerfully acknowledge their right to be human. They are unaware of the fact that their own politicians have, at one or another point in the last 50 years, participated in developing these norms and standards and have made a commitment to enforce human rights by ratifying human rights conventions; and by doing so have made an explicit commitment to scrutinize their country’s laws to be guided by human rights. The sad fact is that, in the words of Ivanka Corti, former chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “millions of people will be born and die and will never know that they have human rights.” This is certainly true for those who are hungry.

It is up to the people of the world, and certainly us, who in our circumstances have been blessed with the freedom to learn and to act, to commit ourselves to transforming this situation.

This opinion piece does not necessarily represent the views of World Hunger Education Service. Shulamith Koenig is founder and director of People’s Decade for Human Rights Education, the initiator and promoter of The UN decade on Human Rights Education, 1995-2004. PDHRE is an international human rights education service organization dedicated to organizing, developing and facilitating the learning about human rights at the community level as a fully comprehensive political, civil, economic, social and cultural human rights relevant to people’s daily lives. PDHRE, an NGO with UN observer status, is facilitating programs and projects of human rights education for social transformation in more than 40 countries. Contact the organization at: PDHRE, 526 West 111th Street, Suite 4E, New York, NY, 10025, USA. Tel.: 212-749-3156, Fax: 212-666-6325,, web site:

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