Challenges of implementing a human rights approach to food security and nutrition

Second globa parliamentary summit against hunger and malnutrition opens in Chile

Opening ceremony of the Second Global Parliamentary Summit against Hunger and Malnutrition in Valparaiso, Chile.

©FAO/Max Valencia


In May 2023, the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) announced that an unprecedented number of 345 million people were battling extreme hunger in 58 countries, in 2022. These people required urgent assistance for food, nutrition, and livelihood in order to survive. This number is the highest recorded since 2017 when the GRFC began reporting such data. The report uses 3 categories of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC): (3) Crisis, (4) Emergency, (5) Catastrophe/Famine conditions. Phase 5 signifies an extreme lack of food and other basic needs, even after implementing all possible coping strategies. At this level, starvation, death, destitution, and critical acute malnutrition are evident. In addition to the cases of extreme hunger, over three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. These numbers represent more than mere statistics, they represent human beings who deserve dignity, and a decent life.

Food insecurity has been on the rise since 2014, but the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the ongoing Ukraine war, has disrupted global food supply chains, creating the most severe global food crisis since the Second World War. Besides these unprecedented issues, extreme weather events related to climate change, such as prolonged and intensified droughts, as well as severe and unpredictable floods, are significantly reducing food production and distribution. Given the adverse impact of these recent multiple crises, reaching the “Zero Hunger” target of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals No. 2, is clearly not viable until 2030.[1]

Notably, these outcomes are not distributed equally across countries, regions, or social groups. While vertical and horizontal inequalities between countries and individuals are widening, the goal of eliminating hunger and malnutrition within marginalized communities remains daunting. Social and economic challenges such as poverty, forced displacement and migration, intergenerational inequality, as well as multiple discriminations prevent equal access to available food in many developing countries. Ironically, most people who suffer from hunger, malnutrition and poverty are concentrated in rural areas, and work in the food and agriculture sector, producing much of the locally consumed foods.

During my mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, I witnessed such inequalities, injustices and human sufferings in various places that were already burdened by the severe impact of climate disasters, political conflicts, skyrocketing food prices, unilateral coercive measures, health hazards of agricultural chemicals, massive displacements due to development projects and extractive industries. Indigenous Peoples and peasants, especially women and children, are unequivocally impacted by such detrimental conditions, more than others. Our job as Special Rapporteurs is to bring the voice of those voiceless people to the UN platforms and international media, shedding light on both deliberate and unintentional, yet irresponsible, policies.

I also witnessed that the right to food has merely become rhetoric, with nothing more than empty promises. Sadly, even many human rights organizations have not used the right to food and the human rights-based approach as a tool to fight against hunger and malnutrition. This is due to a lack of understanding of the procedural rules of human rights law, as well as insufficient institutional, financial, and political support for implementing the right to food. Moreover, there is a sense of disappointment about the fact that human rights principles are not strong enough to reverse policies or effectively penalize perpetrators in order to discourage harmful behaviours.

At the same time, the public sector is gradually losing its regulatory power against global corporate interests and international trade rules. Activists are also losing ground in defending human rights, specifically the right to food, food sovereignty, and promoting local food systems against the global establishment. Furthermore, those who try to protect peoples’ land and water rights are often subject to psychological and physical violence by corporate-supported militias.

Women’s rights and gender equality are continuously undermined everywhere. After many years of efforts, the advancement of gender equality in food systems according to a new report of the Malabo Montpellier Panel is “slow and fragile”. Also, the recent report by the FAO on “The status of women in agri-food systems” estimates that the global gender food security gap has registered an eightfold increase since 2008. The report also highlights that bridging the gender gap in farm productivity would reduce global food insecurity by approximately two percentage points, equivalent to alleviating the number of food-insecure people by 45 million. Additionally, it is estimated that this would contribute around USD 1 trillion to the global GDP.

These trends indicate that current global food systems often exclude the interests of women, Indigenous Peoples, small-scale family farmers and food producers in favour of a few powerful ones. As a result, food security has become highly monopolized and politicized, both at the national and international level, due to the involvement of numerous actors and economic interests. Undermining the human rights system, specifically the right to food and other relevant rights, presents a major obstacle in eliminating hunger and malnutrition in the context of highly unequal food systems and destabilizes the pursuit of overall human security as well.

Considering the detrimental impact of multiple crises, building a common understanding about achieving food security for all is urgently needed, yet fiercely contested. As we have witnessed during the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, there are two distinct perspectives regarding how to address these current multi-layers, multi-actors, and multi-ideological features of global food governance. The dominant perspective is production-oriented, a neoliberal market model, primarily relying on global food trade. This viewpoint is promoted by powerful states, the private sector, large-scale producers, and global food trade supporters. This system has proven to be ineffective for a significant number of smallholder farmers, producers, and food systems workers, while big food corporations continue to experience soaring profits.

The second perspective is the human rights-based approach to food security and nutrition. It prioritizes the right to food and nutrition for all, particularly women, children, food workers and peasants' rights, and equal access to resources. This approach supports small-scale farmers and producers, prioritizes self-sufficiency and local markets, and defends agroecology and food sovereignty.

The right to food was initially acknowledged 75 years ago in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Art. 25, along with other economic rights, which referred to “an adequate standard of living.” Subsequently, the legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976 being signed and ratified by 170 countries, committing them to take measures to optimize available resources in order to gradually achieve the complete realization of the right to adequate food, both at the national and international level.

The right to food was also repeatedly recognized in the major human rights conventions, such as Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on Right of Child, and the Convention on Right to Disable People, as well as a number of national constitutions. More recently, the two important UN Declarations, the Declaration of Right of Indigenous Peoples (2007), and the Declaration of Peasants (2018) extended the content of the right to food by emphasizing individual human rights to communal rights.

Today, more than 30 countries explicitly and  54 countries implicitly recognized the right to food in their constitution[2]. Latin American countries have emerged as champions in advocating for the right to food. Nevertheless, after seven decades, there is still a significant gap between law and implementation, and some states continue to ignore and undermine economic, social and cultural rights, particularly the right to food[3]. It is important to recognize that, despite the successful recognition and implementation of civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights are neglected, ignored and undermined[4].

Challenges of implementing a human rights approach

Since its inception, the right to food has often faced criticism due to its indefinable, undeliverable, and non-justiciable nature. On the other hand, the right to food is undeniably a fundamental human right closely connected to the ‘right to life’. Ethics philosopher Henry Shue argues that basic rights, such as the right to food, are “an essential and necessary condition to the enjoyment of all other rights”[5]. Similarly, Amartya Sen argues that “there is strong evidence that economic and political freedoms help to reinforce one another, rather than being hostile to one another”[6].

One of the reasons for the weak political will to implement the right to food stems from the conflict between the ethics of capitalism, the logic of the market, and the adherence to the realm of economic and social rights.

There is a prevailing perception that the right to food is a matter of charity, humanitarianism, or moral responsibility, rather than a legal entitlement that states are duty-bound to uphold for all individuals. There is a fundamental distinction between these two perspectives. Accordingly, it is crucial for states to ensure that adequate institutions and avenues exist to enable rights holders to hold them accountable for violations of their rights and secure remedial relief for themselves.

It is widely agreed that the quality of institutions has a significant impact not only on the implementation of the right to food, but also on the state’s economy and the level of food security enjoyed by its population[7]. Moreover, institutions cannot be effective without corresponding mechanisms for monitoring and accountability at both domestic and international levels.

In 2013, the long-awaited Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR) entered into force, bringing complaints to the international level from those who experience violations of their economic, social and cultural rights. Unfortunately, state parties are still reluctant to implement the international complaint mechanism, and thus, the protocol remains mostly dormant.

Another challenge is despite the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, which emphasize breaking the silos among various goals, fragmentation of global governance in UN institutions still exists. Institutional fragmentation and silos within and between the Rome-based institutions and Geneva-based human rights organizations and their mechanisms have further weakened efforts to mainstream human rights into the food policy agenda.

In recent years, human rights have been under attack due to emerging nationalism, populism and predatory global capitalism. Unfortunately, world powers are retreating in their historical commitment to human rights. Consequently, United Nations institutions are experiencing extreme financial shortfalls, especially the Human Rights Council and regional human rights mechanisms, such as the Inter-American human rights system[8].

The right to food and other economic rights are mostly violated by the private sector. However, corporations are reluctant to be held accountable for their human rights violations, except for “voluntary corporate social responsibility”. Such a weak regulation simply reinforces the philosophy of the global food industry that enables corporations profiteering from the do-good motto: “feeding the world”, while simultaneously undermining any unintended – or even in some cases intended – consequences of the violation of human rights. Unfortunately, developed countries that are benefiting from current free market-oriented global food systems, blocked the negotiations to establish legally binding agreements against human rights violations by the private sector. This attitude intensifies inequality and poverty, and undermines self-sufficiency, sustainability, agroecology and many other policies that are part and parcel of a human rights-based approach.

Implementing the human rights-based approach would be an effective and appropriate policy tool for building democratic, just and equitable food governance that responds to current social and economic inequalities. This implies the following important policy changes that parliamentarians have the power to develop:

  1. Strong political commitment and allocation of public resources;
  2. Democratic institutional structure to reach meaningful participation in decision making processes, strong partnerships, and dialogues by including marginalized groups;
  3. Emphasis on the most vulnerable communities, individuals, including women, youth and Indigenous Peoples who are the most impacted by immediate crises, yet most capable to solve it;
  4. Dedicated attention to marginalized food systems actors, for sharing information, establishing evidence-based analysis, enabling access to technology and education.
  5. Building effective mechanisms to increase monitoring and accountability against right to food violations.

Eliminating hunger and malnutrition and realizing the right to food are deeply interconnected. Achieving this goal is a substantial undertaking, given the legal, political, economic and environmental conditions of the current world order. However, with political will, solidarity and compassion at every level, the transformation of aspirations into action, is achievable. States must implement those human rights instruments which ensure that all players, not only the powerful ones, are included in the decision-making processes. Those who disproportionately suffer from hunger must be represented and afforded the opportunity to advocate for their rights.

It is important to bear in mind that the human right to food is not an unattainable goal; rather, it remains unrealized. Resolving issues of hunger and malnutrition is not only a commitment to achieving fundamental human rights, but also a means to address the current crisis of inequality and promote justice and political stability in all aspects of the human and natural world. Radical transformation of food governance is crucial if we aim to enhance the resilience of our food systems, particularly in the face of the challenges of our time.

Failure to address inefficiencies, inequities and injustices in global food policies, especially in the midst of escalating climate change, growing social unrest and political instability is unconscionable and unacceptable.

[1] To follow the most recent figures on the Sustainable Development Goals indicators, see:

[2] Recently Brazil, Egypt, Cuba, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Fiji, Maldives, Equator, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Panama, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nige included the right to food in their constitutions in various modes.

[3] To promote the implementation of the right to food at the national level, the FAO Right to Food Office produced a series of handbooks and newsletters to assist regulatory developments and legal actions:

[4] More comprehensive information about progressive development of the economic, social, and cultural rights See: Elver, H., 2016: ‘The Challenges and Developments of the right to food in the 21st Century: Reflections of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food’ in UCLA J. International Law & Foreign Affairs 1: 1–43.

[5] Payne, M. 2008. ‘Shue on Basic Rights’, in Essays in Philosophy, A biannual Journal, p.2 Vol.9 N0.2, Article 5.

[6] Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, p.5

[7] Ramanujam, N., Caivano, N., and Abebe, S. 2015. ‘From Justiciability to Justice: Realizing the Human Rights to Food, in McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law, V.11:1, p.13–14.

[8] For a critical perspective on food systems, food crises and the future of the right to food, see: Final Report of the UNSR on the right to food, A/HRC/43–44, March 2020.

Hilal Elver remarks at the Second Global Parliamentary Summit against Hunger and Malnutrition in Valparaiso, Chile; 15 June 2023.

Hilal is a member of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) since 2022. Research professor at the University of California Santa Barbara since 2002 and the co-director of the Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy Project, as well as a distinguished global fellow at the UCLA Law School, Resnick Food Law and Policy programme. Between 2014-2020, she was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.