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UN right to food expert: COVID-19 is pushing the world into a global hunger crisis (summary interview)

News - 21.09.2020

21 September 2020, Oregon -Michael Fakhri started to carry out his tasks as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in a time of global crisis, marked by the COVID-19, the Beirut explosion and the wildfires in Oregon, where he is based. His first thematic report to the UN General Assembly is now out, with focus on trade and human rights doctrines.

Below you will find a summary of some thoughts of Michael Fakhri on his major areas of interests, his approach about country visits as UN Special Rapporteur, the Food Systems Summit and the CFS legitimity. Click here for the complete interview.

Could you highlight a few main policy recommendations included in your first report to the General Assembly. And what other topics do you envisage to address throughout your mandate-if you have already given this a thought?

My report begins with a summary of longstanding critiques of the Agreement on Agriculture. Whether you are in favor of a trade regime that prioritizes increasing the flow of trade or a trade regime that addresses human rights, there is a widely-held consensus that the Agreement does not work well – the Agreement is neither free nor fair. At the same time, the international trade community has ignored human rights claims, and the human rights community has not put forward an institutional alternative.

In my report, I blend trade and human rights doctrines and outline right to food principles that can form the basis for a new international trade regime in agriculture.

I provide an institutional map of how to change the trade regime. I suggest that we wind down the Agreement on Agriculture leaving us with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT provides a lot flexibility to negotiate new International Food Agreements that can tackle 21st century issues and create an equitable and resilient food system.

As the pandemic has showed protection of workers safety is key to stop the spread of the virus. Why is this issue important to ensure everyone has access to adequate food? 

Food workers have been treated as essential but expendable during the pandemic. To understand what’s at stake, think of food workers as a broad category as anyone who makes our food. So when people talk about “supply chain disruption” what this partly means is that food workers are too sick or scared to work because of dismal working conditions. It means that caregivers at homes, schools, and hospitals are not provided the resources they need to feed families. It means migrant workers are brought in and not provided with adequate protection. And a lot of food workers are women; so women are bearing a disproportionate amount of the risk and burden. When food workers get sick, we don’t eat. If we don’t adequately pay and protect workers, then there’s no one to gather, transport, or cook our food.

The pandemic has just exacerbated existing inequalities. It is now out in the open how important food workers are and how they are always essential. Therefore, we should always be prioritizing their livelihood and well-being.

What will be the strategic approach to your country visits in order to achieve the goals for your mandate?

It's hard to imagine travelling anywhere right now. But I am canvassing everyone I speak to. Of course, I want to make sure I cover as many regions as possible. I think I can be most effective in places where there is active energy coming from civil society.

The purpose of my visits is not only to point out where a country may be falling short of their human rights obligations, but also to find places which can serve as examples for others. So I’ll be looking to visit places that are trying to transition to or are augmenting agroecological practices. Or places that are working with governance structures like local food councils or cooperatives. Schools are proving to be key places to ensure all children have access to adequate food; I would be interested to see how different governments are connecting schools to other parts of the food system.

How do you suggest the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) can make all voices are heard, putting them at the center of policies actions against hunger and malnutrition? And how can global actors engage in the discussions to make more sustainable food systems?

This pandemic is creating a profound effect on the right to food and may push us into a global hunger crisis The CFS remains one of the few multilateral spaces that is also very inclusive to all elements of civil society, commercial interests, research organizations, and other UN organizations.

My worry is that the CFS may regress and slip back into being only a talk-shop, a place where the only accomplishment is words on paper. A crisis is a time for action, not the time for negotiating new rules.

Institutionally, this would require changing the Committee to becoming a more autonomous Council with more control over its own resources and budget. In the least, this would include more equal support from all of the RBAs and new support from other UN organizations. Ideally, this would include more regular support from a wide-range of governments. Substantively, the CFS should develop formal partnerships and a permanent position with at least three other multilateral organizations that are also committed to a rights-based approach. Operationally, the CFS should focus on implementing its already existing policy tools.

What do you think the upcoming Food Systems Summit (is so far missing and) can realistically achieve? Do you think we can expect a human rights-based approach to drive these discussions and follow-up actions?

In some ways, the Summit represents some elements of a global consensus: climate change, current food systems, small-holders or countries of the Global South.

But those same groups along with a number of governments, from the outset, have raised concerns. Their main criticism is that the way the Summit has been put together has not been transparent or inclusive, has side-stepped the CFS, prioritized ideas from the World Economic Forum, and has excluded human rights.

To date, it seems that human rights is either excluded from most aspects of the Summit or is marginalized. By not giving human rights a central role, then it is harder for people to hold powerful governments and companies accountable. It also suggests that solutions will only be technical with no regard to social justice.

Also, the CFS is not on the Advising Committee. The Summit touts itself as a “People’s Summit and Solutions Summit” but does not build upon the CFS’s mechanisms of inclusivity or its policy accomplishments. There’s currently a lot of energy around the Summit, but we’ll have to see if anything comes from it.


About Michael Fakhri and Special Rapporteurs

Michael Fakhri assumed functions as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in May 2020.

He is a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where he teaches courses on human rights, food law, development, and commercial law. He holds a Doctorate from the University of Toronto. 

Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, promote and raise awareness on a particular human right all around the world, as well as facilitating global discussion.

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