The right to food has been recognized since the adoption of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But what does it
imply? And how can it be realized? These are among the questions
likely to arise during debate on a code of conduct concerning
the right to food at the World Food Summit: five years later.
It takes place 10-13 June at FAO headquarters in Rome.
The International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate
Food was first proposed in the run-up to the World Food Summit
in 1996. It has widespread support among non-governmental organizations
who advocate on behalf of the hungry.
Now states are being called upon by these NGOs to start intergovernmental
negotiations on the Code of Conduct, which would provide guidance
on the implementation of the right to food. The Code would not
create new rights or obligations -- these already exist under
international law; it would focus instead on the actual steps
countries could take to ensure that their policies and legislation
respect, protect and fulfil the right to food of everyone.
The right to food is written into the constitutions of over 20
countries, and about 145 countries have ratified the 1966 International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which explicitly
requires signatory states to legislate for the right to adequate
nutrition. But the Code is likely to run into opposition because
of sticky issues like these:
The road from Magna Carta
In human rights theory, there are two types of human rights --
those respected simply through non-intervention, such as the right
to worship, and those that require resources in order to be realized.
Some question whether the latter are rights at all. So there is
a sharp distinction between a narrow interpretation -- the right
to obtain food unhindered through ones own efforts -- and
a broad interpretation -- the right to be supplied with food when
one cannot obtain it.
The narrow interpretation is not new. Englands Magna Carta
of 1215 states that no one shall be amerced (fined)
to the extent that they are deprived of their means of living.
The broad interpretation guarantees adequate nutrition when work
or land are not available and therefore implies the use of resources
to feed people. A number of governments do not accept this interpretation.
Indeed, some have argued that spending time and money to promote
the right to food wastes resources better spent on the poor.
But regarding food security as a right helps focus on the crucial
issues of accountability and nondiscrimination, which also have
their foundations in human rights law. In sum, the right to food
is all about good governance and attention to the poorest and
the most marginalized.
Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right
to Food, questions the whole distinction between abstract freedoms
and those that require resources. "Even implementing civil
and political rights does in fact imply resources," he has
written. "The cost of setting up and training the police
force, military and judiciary to implement international human
rights law is not insignificant."
Even under a narrow interpretation of the right to food, governments
must maintain an environment in which people can feed themselves.
"People have a responsibility to obtain their food, so you
cant automatically blame the state for malnutrition,"
says FAO legal officer Margret Vidar. "But the state can
be responsible for a circumstance that causes it." For example,
people must have adequate wages or access to land to buy or grow
food, she points out. Unfair monopolies must not distort food
markets or seed supply. "The state must ensure fair play,
or it could be violating the right to food," she adds.
See you in court
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
goes further, saying that states must do everything possible to
ensure adequate nutrition -- and legislate to that effect. But
hungry citizens cant prosecute their government under the
Covenant, only under their countrys own laws. If a country
never passed any such laws, it has violated the Covenant, but
the citizen has no redress.
The United Nations monitors implementation of the Covenant through
its Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which
is serviced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights. In 1999, the Committee insisted that countries should
pass laws protecting the right to food.
Would this work? Jean Ziegler has quoted examples where it has.
Economic, social and cultural rights, including the right
to food, are constitutionally guaranteed in South Africa.
In a landmark legal case, Government of the Republic of
South Africa v. Irene Grootboom and others, the court
ruled that the Government had violated the Constitution by
not making reasonable provision for persons in
desperate need. (That case concerned housing, but the right
to food enjoys a similar constitutional protection -- so the
finding is considered relevant).
In 2001 in the Supreme Court of India, NGOs successfully forced
public corporations and state governments to accept responsibility
"Its hard for the starving to sue," says Ms Vidar.
"But NGOs and other bodies can use the law in order to protect
the poor. So let the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,
or its equivalent, be written into national law, whether we adopt
the Code of Conduct or not. The law can be the bridge between the
hungry and the food they need."