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This study has analysed the norms of international law that are related to the right to adequate food in emergency situations. In so doing, it has focused on two main issues: the obligations of States and non-State entities to respect, protect and fulfil the right to adequate food in emergencies; and the principles and standards applicable to food and food-related aid programmes implemented by international humanitarian agencies.

Under international human rights law, every human being has the right to have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or to the means for its procurement. In order to progressively realize this right, each State has a legal obligation to take steps to the maximum of its available resources, both individually and through international assistance and cooperation. As a fundamental human right, the right to adequate food applies in emergency situations, including both natural disasters and armed conflicts.

The recognition of the right to adequate food embodied in human rights law is supplemented by norms contained in other branches of international law (refugee law, economic law, environmental law). Moreover, in armed conflicts, international humanitarian law is applicable.

International human rights law and international humanitarian law (where applicable) are complementary. Human rights law, which is applicable (albeit to different degrees) in both peace and war, recognizes the right of individuals to have access at all times to safe and nutritious food or to the means for its procurement. Humanitarian law, on the other hand, applies only in armed conflicts (and in other related situations, like occupation) and is instrumental to protecting certain basic human rights, including the right to food, in these situations. Many of its provisions are aimed at ensuring that persons or groups not taking or no longer taking part in the hostilities are not denied food or access to food, by prescribing certain conduct and prohibiting certain behaviour.

Thus, international humanitarian law contains numerous provisions aimed at facilitating humanitarian assistance to persons in need, which impose obligations both upon the parties to the hostilities and upon States not taking part in the conflict. Parties to the conflict must allow humanitarian assistance whenever the basic needs of the civilian population, including food, are not fulfilled and an impartial humanitarian organization offers such assistance. Indeed, while humanitarian assistance is under international law subject to the consent of the affected State, the discretion of the latter in refusing consent is limited by several norms and principles of international (humanitarian and human rights) law: aid offers cannot be considered unfriendly acts; refusals must be justified by valid reasons; refusals could constitute violations of human rights law provisions on the right to food and the right to life; refusals could amount to deliberate starvation of civilians, war crime, genocide or crime against humanity, punishable under international law. Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must also protect relief consignments and facilitate their rapid distribution, and must refrain from delaying or diverting them. In addition, international humanitarian law limits the right of the parties to international and non-international armed conflicts to choose methods and means of warfare, and prohibits the use of starvation of civilians. A party to the conflict cannot attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuff, crops, drinking water installations, or make these objects the target of reprisals.

In specified circumstances, particularly serious violations of international law, including some forms of violation of the right to adequate food (e.g. the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare), constitute crimes punishable under international law, namely genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Adjudication over these crimes rests with domestic courts and/or with international tribunals.

International economic law contains norms regulating the provision of food aid, which are binding for the States parties to the relevant treaties. Norms are embodied both within WTO instruments (Agreement on Agriculture; Decision on Least-Developed and Net Food-Importing Developing Countries) and within international commodity agreements (Food Aid Convention 1999, which is part of the International Grains Agreement). The Food Aid Convention provides for the supply of specified quantities of food aid by identified donor States, and for principles and criteria guiding such supply. WTO norms include criteria for domestic food aid (exempting it from reduction commitments concerning domestic support to agriculture) and for international food aid (particularly regulating the relationship between food aid and commercial transactions). International standards on food safety, animal and plant health are applicable in emergency situations.

Finally, principles and standards contained in internationally recognized codes of conduct adopted by humanitarian agencies and NGOs, which are not binding and outside the scope of international law, may provide insights on the interpretation and operationalization of some aspects of the right to adequate food in emergencies.

As for the identification of principles and standards for food and food-related aid, several principles and standards have been identified, namely: impartiality and non-discrimination; special protection and assistance for vulnerable groups; gender approach; consideration for longer-term rehabilitation and development; participation; environment protection; and adequacy standards.

Impartiality and non-discrimination entail that aid must be distributed according to need only. Special protection and assistance must be provided to categories of particularly vulnerable groups, determined in international instruments or identified in each humanitarian programme. A gender approach is to be integrated in aid programmes, by avoiding discrimination against women and by taking women’s special nutritional needs into account (especially with regard to expectant and nursing mothers).

Although food and food-related aid aims at satisfying urgent and immediate needs, it must take into account longer-term rehabilitation and development concerns. Ways in which participation may be integrated within aid programmes are to be devised. While not required to carry out an environmental impact assessment before undertaking their relief programmes, humanitarian agencies should take into account environmental concerns in the design and implementation of their programmes, and respect plant and animal protection standards.

Finally, food and food-related aid must meet certain minimum requirements, especially in terms of food safety for human consumption. Due regard must be given to cultural acceptability.

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