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close this bookEnding Malnutrition by 2020: An Agenda for Change in the Millennium - Final report to the ACC/SCN by the commission on the nutrition challenges of the 21st century (ACC/SCN, 2000, 104 p.)
close this folder5. Food, Nutrition and Human Rights
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View the document5.1 What difference does a rights-based approach make?
View the document5.2 The International Code of Conduct of the Human Right to Adequate Food


In the 21st century human rights will increasingly influence what happens in all aspects of life - civil, political, economic and cultural. A human rights vision was in evidence at the 1995 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development, when Heads of State and Government underlined their commitment "to a political, economic, ethical and spiritual vision for social development based on human dignity, human rights, equality, peace, democracy, mutual responsibility...". In his 1997 UN reform proposals, the Secretary-General renewed the call for human rights to be mainstreamed in all activities of the UN system as a whole (UN, 1997). It is in this context that the human right to adequate food and nutrition must play a critical role in efforts to deal with hunger and undernutrition.

The right to food is enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is further spelled out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11) adopted by the General Assembly in 1966, and reiterated with a view to its more qualitative nutritional aspects in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 24.1) adopted in 1989. While human rights conventions are binding for member states who ratify them, other instruments are important in supporting their follow-up1. Thus nutrition is recognised as a key component of development in the non-binding Declaration on the Right to Development of 1986 which calls for all states to ensure equal opportunity for all in access to health services and food.

1 A government may sign a convention at the time of adoption but this would not be binding for the state. It becomes binding only when the government formally ratifies the convention, which normally requires the consent of the legislative institution, for example, parliament or congress. The state then becomes a State Party to that convention. By contrast, a declaration, compact, or code of conduct is merely a political commitment by those who participate in its adoption, and is not legally binding unless or until it becomes part of what is considered customary international law.

More recently the World Food Summit was a milestone in the process of defining better the content of the right to food and nutrition, and in setting in motion activities to guide states, civil society and international organisations in implementation. The right to food is already rooted in the philosophy of many ideological and political systems. The special feature of the international human rights system is that this right has been brought into a universal moral and legal normative system with corresponding institutions, mechanisms and procedures for its implementation, as agreed upon by the majority of the UN member states.

Yet, as 840 million food-insecure people testify, commitment and opportunities for action have not yet been transformed into practical activities that will guarantee hungry people enough to eat, in ways that will promote their food and nutritional security over time and in a dignified manner. To date, the right to adequate food remains one of the most cited in solemn declarations of political intent, and one of the most neglected and violated in practice. It is against this background that the World Food Summit challenged the international community to give operational meaning to this right.