The World Food Summit: A Milestone in Developing a Human Rights Approach to Food and Nutrition

Arne Oshaug and Wenche Barth Eide

The access to adequate food and nutrition is denied for a large proportion of the inhabitants of this globe, perhaps 800 million people of the world’s population of 3.5 billion.

This calls for a radical new approach– a human rights approach.

The World Food Summit (WFS) held in November, 1996 was a milestone in the efforts to bring attention to the right to food and nutrition as a human right. The world leaders gathered in Rome not only formally renewed their commitment to the right to food, but specifically interpreted it as the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.

The Summit adopted a Plan of Action formulated in seven Commitments.

Commitment 7, Objective 4, stipulates the need:

“…to clarify the content of the right to food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger… and to give particular attention to implementation and full and progressive realization of this right as a means of achieving food security for all.”

In support of this objective, Governments:

“…invite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in consultation with [others], to better define the rights related to food in Article 11 of the Covenant and to propose ways to implement and realise these rights…”. (World Food Summit Plan of Action, FAO, 1996).

The Summit thus challenged the international community–governments, civil society, and international institutions– to take concrete steps toward a right-to-food- based approach to the immense food and nutrition problems of our time.

The fact that the WFS assigned a particular role to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and thereby the entire United Nations human rights machinery, in the process of following up Commitment 7.4 may have escaped a number of post-Summit commentators but is nonetheless an extremely important development. The solid anchoring of the further clarification of the right to food and nutrition in the quarters of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and related bodies has brought a new kind of attention to the task of giving concrete content to this right and promoting its adaptation to real life situations in different countries.

Also at the International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) held in Rome four years earlier, attempts were made by several delegations to get a stronger reference to adequate food and nutrition as a human right in the final documents. Here, however, the reactions from a number of delegations and from several UN agencies were in part openly hostile, and certainly were strong enough to kill the effort to focus attention on the human right to food.

In the case of the WFS the circumstances, and therefore also the results, were different.

Already prior to the official preparations, which took place in the FAO Committee on Food Security (CFS), a group of NGOs met to discuss a strategy for lobbying to bring food and nutrition as human rights into the WFS final documents. The negotiations themselves reflected a good diplomatic interaction. The human rights knights were well prepared, willing to compromise during the sometimes heated inter-sessional negotiations, and skilled in the crafting of acceptable texts, but they were also firm and persistent with regard to the content.

Thus, while initially there was a strong resistance to having a substantial reference to the right to food, as discussions went on the resistance became more benign. It became clear that many delegations simply knew very little about human rights in general and especially about economic, social and cultural rights; hence they also lacked familiarity with thinking of food and health in terms of human rights. With increasing understanding more delegations supported bringing the right to food into the agenda and defended their position to do so.

Others were cautiously curious, but after a while even anxious to move on with it, of course, first loyally checking their home base for clearance.

In the end, the result was better than any nutrition rights advocate could have hoped.

The fact that the result is of a procedural, rather than a substantive, nature may have been disappointing to some, while in actual fact this was exactly what was needed: a green light for an in-depth process by the United Nations, governments and civil society, of clarifying both content and the steps needed to pursue food and nutrition problems and policies in a human rights context in the future. As the negotiations of the final texts had already been completed by the time of the opening of the Summit proper, only a few States (among them the United States) found it necessary to make reservations toward the content of Commitment 7.4.

bangcousinsTwelve-year-old cousins from Bangladesh stand in front of a wall with a black tape line indicating the normal projected height for a child their age. Both girls come from families with sufficient food resources. Juhora exceeds the height norm; Asma is considerably below it. Such stunting can result from frequent illnesses during childhood and lack of care. Good physical and mental development requires care and protection, as well as the right kind of food. Photo: UNICEF/Vauclair

The timing was perfect, just prior to the year of preparations for the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1998. The further developments have demonstrated that Commitment 7.4, which may have appeared dull and bureaucratic to the uninitiated, in fact did become a catalyst for processes that have already lead to irreversible change in attitudes and openness in many circles toward a human rights approach to solving food and nutrition problems.

From the United Nations we have seen a number of positive signs that point in this direction in the last couple of years. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has held expert meetings on the topic in the search for clarifications of the matter. The Food and Agricultural Organization has in various ways helped keep the issue under consideration, through the intergovernmental Committee on Food Security and, at the secretariat level, especially through its Legal Division. It has, for example, highlighted Commitment 7.4 through expanded contacts into the various relevant human rights bodies such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the treaty body for the Covenant on ESCR), and through expert meetings and in-house discussions in Rome.

Other developments in the UN witness an increasingly supportive political climate for operationalizing and testing out a human rights approach to food and nutrition.

UNICEF’s decision almost three years ago to make human rights the overall guiding principle for all its work is a continuing inspiration for everyone working in the field of nutrition and devoted to human rights. Further stimulus has come through UNDP’s recent effort to integrate human rights into sustainable human development a concept where food and nutrition indeed has a key place (UNDP, 1998).

A special breakthrough came in the annual meeting of the interagency nutrition circles of the United Nations, more specifically the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination-Subcommittee on Nutrition (ACC-SCN), in March of this year. With the background of sustained efforts in its Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights over the last years and advocacy by certain member organizations and bilateral observers, the SCN at this meeting agreed to bring human rights into its domain of concerns. It approved that its annual meeting in 1999 would be hosted by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and that a special thematic symposium would be devoted to “The Substance and Politics of a Human Rights Approach to Food and Nutrition Policies and Programming.”

As for the NGO community, it held its own Forum parallel to the World Food Summit. The Forum agreed to the Summit’s suggestion to take into account the possibility of formulating voluntary guidelines, as support for formulating a code of conduct on the right to food. Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) together with the World Alliance for Nutrition and Human Rights (WANAHR) and Institut Jacques Maritain Internationale, with inputs from a number of NGOs, undertook responsibility for preparing a Draft International Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food as a Human Right. This document was ready in September, 1997, and has since been widely distributed. It is meant to inspire NGOs and governments in understanding the substance of the right to food, as well as the more precise obligations or responsibilities that need to be and should be developed for the State, members of the civil society and the private sector.

The document has now been endorsed by more than 800 NGOs, and will in due time be brought before the relevant intergovernmental bodies for their discussion and, we hope, endorsement.

The NGO community as a whole must now exploit a historical momentum and apply, with increasing understanding and force, a human rights approach in their work related to food and nutrition. They should do so based on an ever-improving understanding of the human rights system, which is a system of underlying moral values, legal obligations, institutions and procedures to promote and monitor the compliance with human rights. This system ought now to be explored by many more NGOs and utilized to the maximum to ensure the realization of all human rights, including the right to food and nutrition.

Resources and References Used
United Nations Development Program. 1998. Sustainable Human Development and Human Rights. A UNDP Policy Paper. New York: UNDP.

Arne Oshaug and Wenche Barth Eide have been leaders in the international effort to give content to the right to food/adequate nutrition as a human right. They are both nutritionists, specializing in Public Nutrition.

Oshaug is presently Deputy Director/General, Department of Food Production and Health, in the Ministry of Agriculture of Norway. He has been an associate professor at the Institute for Nutrition Research and School of Nutrition, University of Oslo. Eide is an associate professor at the same institution. She has been on the staff of IFAD, Rome as Technical Advisor in Nutrition. She serves as Joint Secretary of the Working Group on “Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights” of the United Nations Administrative Coordinating Committee, Subcommittee on Nutrition, on behalf of the World Alliance on Nutrition and Human Rights.