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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.

5.1 What difference does a rights-based approach make?

The differences between a rights-based approach and a basic-needs approach to food and nutrition programming may seem subtle. However, there are fundamental differences. Both have an ethical and juridical dimension. Basic-needs approaches define "beneficiaries" and their needs. This approach is one of dependency in the sense that beneficiaries have no active claim to ensure that their needs will be met. Also, there is no binding obligation or duty for anybody to meet these needs. Basic needs approaches have an element of charity.

A human rights approach starts from the ethical position that all people are entitled to a certain standard in terms of material and spiritual well-being. A human rights approach thus removes the charitable dimension and emphasises rights and responsibilities. It recognises beneficiaries as active subjects and claim-holders and establishes duties or obligations for those against whom a claim can be held ('duty-bearers'). The concept of claim-holders and duty-bearers introduces an important element of accountability. Accountability holds the key to effectiveness of action and offers "added value".

A human rights framework means:

human rights are legally binding for States, not optional as in the case of recommendations from global summits and conferences.

international human rights need to be translated into appropriate national law, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants.

human rights require active and effective remedies, not necessarily by the use of courts, and any person or group whose rights are violated should have access to appropriate remedial measures.

accountability, both domestic and international, which contributes to 'good governance'. Under the international covenants, states are obliged to submit periodic reports on the human rights measures they have taken; these reports are public and can be used to hold governments accountable for non-compliance. Accountability, both domestic and international, contributes to good governance.

Introduction of a rights approach also has important implications for the analysis of food and nutrition problems and for policy and programme planning. Analysis of causal factors would need to be complemented by an analysis of obstacles confronting the realisation of the right to adequate food, from the household up to the national and international levels. This would be the basis for determining who is to be held accountable for these obstacles and who would be responsible for their removal. These aspects become all the more important in a globalizing world dominated by the forces of economic and financial markets, which have little respect for the well-being of individuals. Many countries have offered various 'justifications' for not taking the necessary steps to implement the right to food and other economic, social and cultural rights as legal rights. These include the "impossibility" of defining economic and social rights in legally enforceable terms, prohibitive costs to the state, and the impossibility of enforcement when economies are poor or suffer economic and political shocks. A counter-argument is that the "real issue" is lack of political commitment.

These arguments rest at least - in part on misunderstandings about the nature of economic, social and cultural rights. The state is nor to be seen as a primary provider in the sense that people can claim "a free lunch". The state should first and foremost respect citizens' rights to feed themselves. The state should also protect this right from threats by third parties, as in the case of unexpected natural calamities, and generally help facilitate conditions for people to care for themselves. Only as a last resort is the state obliged to provide direct assistance to those who are unable to fulfill their right to food and nutrition.

5.2 The International Code of Conduct of the Human Right to Adequate Food

In its Plan of Action the World Food Summit mandated the High Commissioner for Human Rights to take the lead in better defining the right to food and nutrition and ways to implement it. Governments in particular need to come to grips with what is required of them to meet their obligations. These requirements have been developed in general terms in a draft International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food (FIAN/WANAHR/Institute Jacques Maritain International, 1997). The Code of Conduct is aimed at State Parties which have ratified the relevant Conventions, with a view to the complementary roles of civil society and the private sector. The Code was prepared by international NGOs and has now been endorsed by a great number of NGOs from all parts of the world. It was launched in September 1997. While the Code would be voluntary for member states, it may - if and when brought up for formal adoption by the appropriate intergovernmental body - pave the way for a more legally binding instrument at a later stage. The Code provides a definition of the normative content of the right to food, it proposes corresponding State obligations at national and international levels, responsibilities for international organisations and regulations for economic enterprises, as well as responsibilities for participants in civil society. It addresses means and methods for implementation, a framework for national monitoring as well as recourse procedures and international reporting, monitoring and support mechanisms.