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The World Food Summit decided in November 1996 to entrust the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights with the mandate of better defining the rights related to food, as set out in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This included the responsibility to propose ways to implement and realize these rights as a means of achieving the commitments and objectives of the World Food Summit, taking into account the possibility of formulating voluntary guidelines for food security for all. The Commission on Human Rights and the Economic and Social Council endorsed this mandate.

Children in Madras eat what they can find on the streets
Hunger is an outrageous violation of human dignity that requires urgent measures for its elimination.

My first substantive step in the implementation of this important task was to convene a two-day consultation in Geneva on 1 and 2 December 1997. Representatives of the United Nations system, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and experts participated in the Consultation. The first day was devoted to a general discussion within the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the normative content of the right to food as set out in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The second day was an expert meeting, which focused on the implementation of the right to food, that is the practical steps to be taken at national and international levels for the full enjoyment of that right.

The Commission on Human Rights discussed the report of this consultation and, on 1l April 1998, adopted resolution 1998/23 on the right to food. By this resolution, the Commission reaffirmed that hunger constitutes an outrage and a violation of human dignity and, therefore, requires the adoption of urgent measures at national, regional and international levels for its elimination. The Commission also reaffirmed 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 so as to be able to develop fully and maintain their physical and mental capacities.

The Commission therefore considered it intolerable that more than 800 million people throughout the world, especially women and children and those living in developing countries, do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs, which infringes their fundamental human rights.

The Commission also welcomed the initiative undertaken by my Office to convene the Consultation on the Right to Adequate Food, as a concrete and practical response to Objective 7.4 of the Rome Declaration and Plan of Action. The meeting concluded that the human right to adequate food is firmly established in international law, but its operational content and means of application are generally little understood.

A human rights approach to food and nutrition problems is fundamentally different from basic needs-oriented approaches to development. It introduces a normative basis, which is obligatory at the state level. It also implies that the "beneficiaries" of development are active subjects and "claim holders" and stipulates the duties or obligations of those against whom such claims can be held. Finally, such an approach introduces an accountability dimension not present in basic needs strategies.

A fundamental misunderstanding in the implementation of the right to food, has been the notion that the principal obligation is for the state to feed the citizens under its jurisdiction (fulfilling the right to food), rather than respecting and protecting the rights related to food, as well as emphasizing the obligations of individuals and civil society in this regard.

The Consultation therefore recommended that a follow-up meeting should take place to complete the discussions on the content and means for implementation of the right to adequate food. The Commission on Human Rights endorsed the proposal to have a follow-up meeting before the end of 1998 to pursue the discussions on the contents and means of implementation of the rights related to adequate food.

A baby on its mother's back, Ghana
Everyone has the right to safe and nutritious food.

In addition, the Commission requested that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights draft, discuss and adopt a general comment on the rights related to food. Such a general comment would greatly enhance the common understanding of what the right to food means and give greater guidance for the States Parties to the Covenant in their reporting obligations on how they are implementing this right.

My Office is therefore convening a second round of consultations, hosted by FAO in Rome on 18 and 19 November 1998. It is my hope that this venue will facilitate an even stronger participation from the Rome-based food agencies; they are the ones in constant touch with the practical realities of the right to food, and the lack of it.

I would like to see FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) becoming more institutionally sensitive to the fact that aspects of the right to food are their main purpose, and more willing to take a rights approach in their work, as well as taking part in the effort of the United Nations to integrate human rights in general into all aspects of its work.

Many actors are relevant to the right to food. Apart from the Rome agencies already mentioned, the right to food is relevant to the mandate of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank and many others. I would like these organizations to achieve a common understanding and common direction for eliminating hunger and malnutrition, and I attach great importance to the dialogue between them and my own Office.

Empty shelves in Moscow reflect serious food shortages
The right to food is supported by international law, but effective means of putting it into practice have still to be established.

There is a clear division of labour between human rights institutions and development actors. At the international level this means that the United Nations human rights machinery is charged with monitoring the realization - and violation - of the right to adequate food, while the development agencies provide technical, financial and food assistance.

For the food and development agencies, clarification of the right to food is essential for the putting into practice of food security objectives. In this connection, the Maastricht Guidelines interpret the Covenant's call for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights as requiring states to achieve specific targets to satisfy a normative standard (the "obligation of result").

Market traders in Togo display their wares
The state should be seen as the protector of rights relating to food, rather than merely being the direct supplier of food in emergencies.

The global development conferences of the 1990s have provided important guidance in this regard, by providing quantitative, time-frame development targets, including food and nutrition. Within this framework, states can now set their own country-specific targets as a means for realizing the right to adequate food.

Of equal importance to the actors of the United Nations and intergovernmental system are NGOs. The human rights agenda is very much influenced by NGOs and civil society in general. NGOs are often able to be ahead of intergovernmental bodies in policies because of their different nature. For instance, a network of NGOs is already lobbying for its own draft Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food, which would be a great working tool, even if it is not immediately adopted by the international community.

Let me state my approach. I am committed to giving equal importance to all human rights - civil, cultural, economic, political and social. Economic, social and cultural rights have received too little attention in the past but, as was reconfirmed by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, "all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated".

In practice, we have not yet achieved the universal, interdependent and interrelated protection and promotion of civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights. Whereas clear standards have been set as to the contents of civil and political rights, the precise meaning of economic, social and cultural rights remains vague. If all human rights are to be treated on an equal footing, more attention needs to be paid to clarifying the universal minimum core contents of economic, social and cultural rights.

In this respect, the World Food Summit Plan of Action must be very warmly welcomed. Objective 7.4 of the Plan of Action creates the possibility for a substantive strengthening of the right to food as contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

For the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which constitutes a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, it is my pleasure to introduce FAO's publication on The right to food in theory and practice, which throws light on the different but complementary approaches of the many actors involved.

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Mary Robinson
United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights

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