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Making rights a reality

The primary responsibility for ensuring the right to adequate food and the fundamental right to freedom from hunger rests with national governments. It is generally acknowledged that hunger is both a violation of human dignity and an obstacle to social, political and economic progress, and a number of countries have enshrined the right to food in their constitutions. Yet to date no country has adopted national legislation to specifically realize this right.

State obligations: respect, protect, fulfil

Countries with the right to food enshrined in their constitutions. Click here to view a larger map and list of countries.

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The right to food does not mean that the state has a duty to distribute food to all its citizens. It does, however, have an obligation to respect the right to food by not interfering with individuals' efforts to provide for themselves. It must also protect its people from infringement of their rights by others. The state's obligation to fulfil means that it should help those who do not already enjoy the right to food by creating opportunities for them to provide for themselves. If these three safeguards fail to secure adequate food for all, then the state should provide, especially to those who because of age, disability, unemployment or other disadvantages cannot fend for themselves.

Food safety is essential
Food quality and safety are important aspects of the right to food. Food safety implies the absence or safe levels of contaminants, bacteria, naturally occurring toxins or any other substance that may make food injurious to health.

In Lebanon, a laboratory technician uses a microscope to check olives for parasites.
Lebanon/Faidutti/19014

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To protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade, FAO and the World Health Organization established the Codex Alimentarius Commission in 1962. The commission is an intergovernmental body, currently comprising 165 member states, that prepares international food standards and other recommendations to promote food quality and safety. The Codex Alimentarius, or food code, has become the global reference point for consumers, food producers and processors, national food control agencies and the international food trade. It offers a framework for states to use in establishing national food control legislation and systems to protect the rights of consumers to safe and fairly marketed foods.

Enabling people to meet their needs
"The state's obligation to fulfil the right to food comprises two elements: the obligation to facilitate and the obligation to provide," says FAO Legal Officer Margret Vidar. "The obligation to facilitate means that it should create and maintain an 'enabling environment' within which people are able to meet their food needs."

A broadcast of market price information
Zambia/Conti/17819

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Agricultural development is not only the key to increasing food availability, but as a major employer in most developing countries, it helps to bring rural people out of poverty. But the right to food comprises more than just food production. Markets full of food are useless if people do not have access to them. Efficient national food supply systems must be accompanied by appropriate marketing facilities, equitable rural development policies and adequate opportunities to produce food or earn enough money to buy it. Development of the transportation and communications infrastructures is essential.

"Facilitating enjoyment of the right to food does not necessarily mean direct state intervention in all aspects of the food system," adds Ms Vidar. "But the state can take steps to ensure that private markets are able to perform well."

There are a number of measures governments can take to promote private food markets without resorting to inefficient and costly price controls and direct food assistance. By reducing barriers to obtaining trade licences, they can make it cheaper and easier for companies to enter the market. They can also encourage trade and keep food prices affordable by reducing value-added taxes on food commodities and by enacting legislation prohibiting monopolies. Public access to price data, through radio broadcasts or other means, can also be an effective way to ensure that small traders have the information they need to enter the food business. FAO has supported a number of publicly operated food price information systems in developing countries to make this data more readily available.

Providing for the vulnerable in emergencies
In extreme emergencies, the state's obligation may require it to distribute food. To meet the needs of the most vulnerable, governments may also issue food coupons or cash grants or institute food-for-work employment schemes. When a low-income country is unable to meet the needs of its people through its own resources, the state's obligation may include appealing for help from the international community.

Violations of the right to food

An open-air market in Zambia
Zambia/Conti/17842

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Violations of the right to adequate food include any form of discrimination in ensuring access to food, or to the means of acquiring it, on the grounds of race, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. In addition, a number of international instruments, including the Rome Declaration on World Food Security, proclaim that food should not be used to exact political or economic pressure, whether in the form of food embargoes or other measures that endanger access to food in other countries.

It is in situations of crisis such as civil conflict or natural disasters that the right to food is most likely to be violated. Violations include denial of access to humanitarian food aid or the deliberate starvation of civilians through the intentional destruction of food or the tools of agriculture -- equipment, crops, livestock and water supplies. A state's failure to call for adequate and timely international assistance during an emergency may also be a violation of the obligation to fulfil the right to food.

Scarcity can also breed conflict, however, with the struggle for control over or access to natural resources evolving into violence. These conflicts, in turn, destroy productive capacities and damage the environment, making it difficult for people to sustain their livelihoods and achieve food security.

Knowledge is power in the fight against hunger
To mount appropriate humanitarian responses when emergencies arise, or to avert potential food crises, policy-makers and analysts need access to the most up-to-date information available. FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS) issues regular reports and alerts to draw attention to deterioration in food supplies and access to them as a result of conflict and natural disasters. Although it is a global system, GIEWS focuses particular attention on the countries and regions where food emergencies are most likely to occur.

FAO also provides technical assistance to help governments improve their national food security monitoring systems. By facilitating needs assessment and the planning of timely interventions to impending food emergencies, the information these systems provide is essential to ensuring the right to adequate food for all (For more about FAO and food emergencies, click here).

The 'rights' path
"FAO is looking forward to opportunities to work with countries on framework legislation on the right to food," says Ms Vidar. "We already have considerable experience in advising countries on national legislation and this would be a natural extension of those activities, preferably in cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights."

A rights-based approach to food security entails ensuring non-discrimination, democratic participation, transparency and accountability and, according to Ms Vidar, law is the ideal tool for allocating responsibility to the appropriate organ and establishing processes by which these principles can be upheld. This is especially important in dealing with a cross-sectoral, multidimensional issue like food security, she notes.

"Rights-based activities seem an inevitable path for FAO to follow in the long run," says Ms Vidar. "But specific initiatives, such as pilot work on framework legislation or effectively integrating the right to food in our development and emergency work, might require increased support from the donor community."

  

The Codex Alimentarius Commission
FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS)
FAO Legal Office
Right to Food Web site
News & Highlights story: Farm radio broadcasters call for greater collaboration
Focus Archive