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close this bookOvercoming Global Hunger (WB)
close this folderAssociated event- the ethical dimensions of global hunger: a panel discussion
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Ibrahima Fall

Today, despite efforts reaching back to the establishment of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1945, hunger, malnutrition, and starvation remain a scourge to a significant, and in some areas growing, part of the population of our planet. This scourge is not only one of developing countries Hunger and malnutrition, especially among children, is ever present, and is even increasing, in industrial societies Nor is it a problem purely of economics or commodity distribution, because many of its causes are related to human rights, as are many elements essential to its solution.

The background papers prepared for this conference dearly show that new directions, techniques, and methods and renewed political commitments are required to face the challenge of world hunger Comprehensive efforts are required, nationally and internationally, to change the economic, political, and social factors that contribute to the maintenance of and increase in hunger and malnutrition. Important future actions include fostering people's participation in decisionmaking, reducing inequalities, making efforts in favor of women and the excluded, and establishing impartial and functioning legal systems to provide juridical security for property and economic activity.

But what of the human rights perspective? What contribution can the United Nations system for the promotion and protection of human rights make to the objectives of this conference, in particular, to an effective strategy to reduce hunger and generate the political will necessary to implement that strategy? Unfortunately, the preparatory documents I have been able to study are silent on the human rights aspects of the fight against hunger. Yet much has been done, and the human rights perspective has much to offer to the goal of overcoming hunger.

Is not human rights the very basis of the United Nations work against hunger? In 1941 President Roosevelt announced the objective of a future world in which people everywhere would enjoy four basic freedoms freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Those four freedoms are reflected throughout the United Nations Charter and are encapsulated in the preamble's commitment to achieving "social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom" This objective has provided the framework for all our subsequent work in the field of human rights spanning some forty-five years.

The fight against hunger, malnutrition, and starvation from the human rights perspective is based on everyone's right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing ,, housing and medical care," as laid down in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights Much more precision is given to this right by Article 11, paragraph 2, of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which recognizes "the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger" and provides for states party to that treaty to take measures, individually and through international cooperation, including specific programs needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

More than 126 countries have accepted the International Covenant not only as a proclamation of individual rights for their people, but also as a basic principle for state policy.

A large number of other international human rights instruments dealing with such issues as women, discrimination, armed conflict, refugees, and disaster relief, to name only a few, also explicitly recognize the right to food and the specific protection of this right. More recently, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, now ratified by more than 150 states, recognizes children's right to "a standard of living adequate for the Child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development," and provides for assistance and support programs for, among other things, nutrition.

A final word about the international legal framework for the right to adequate food. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes every human being's "inherent right to life" and the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that "every child has the inherent right to life." The Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that oversees the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, commented on the meaning of the phrase "inherent right to life":

The expression "inherent right to life" cannot properly be understood in a restrictive manner, and the protection of this right requires that States adopt positive measures. In this connection, the.

Committee considers that it would be desirable for States parties to take all possible measures to reduce infant mortality and to increase life expectancy, especially in adopting measures to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics.

There can be no doubt that international law clearly recognizes the individual's right to adequate food and that states have duties and responsibilities to protect that right, but what does the right to adequate food mean, and what are the ways available to ensure respect for that right? Centuries of attention by legal experts and political leaders has given much precision to such concepts as the right to a fair trial, although even today we continue to discover new aspects of that right. The right to food has not benefited from this historical attention, but that does not mean it is not a basic human right It does mean that we have to make a sustained effort now to define that right and to find adequate means to implement it and to measure the success of that implementation.

In the mid-1980s the Norwegian expert Professor Asbjorn Eide carried out a study of the right to adequate food as a human right. Many of the concerns, issues, and dilemmas we find in the background papers for this conference were also reflected in Professor Eide's study. In attempting to give more precision to the right to adequate food he proposed the following three guiding principles. First, food must be adequate in terms of nutritional quantity and quality, it must be safe from adverse alien substances, and it must be culturally acceptable in the context of prevailing food patterns Second, food procurement must be viable, that is, food must be available consistently along with the procurement of other basic human needs and obtaining it must not conflict with the need to respond to other household necessities; Third, access to food must be sustainable over time, that is, the physical and institutional environment must be optimally used, protected from erosion or destruction, and restored or replaced as necessary. Professor Eide combined these three guiding principles with three levels of national or state obligations in relation to the right to adequate food. The first is the duty to respect States must not interfere with the activities of individuals and groups, especially those based on existing food patterns, in a way that would defeat their right to adequate food. Second, states must act to protect the existing food pattern from distortion, to ensure food safety, or to counteract influences negatively affecting the existing food culture. Here one thinks of activities to limit the promotion of breastmilk substitutes. Third, states must take a variety of measures to fulfill the rights to adequate food, including correcting negative aspects of existing patterns of food distribution, incorporating nutritional considerations in development activities, providing for national food security, and ensuring assistance where needed,.

I believe that these considerations, while general in nature, provide a useful framework for discussion of the right to adequate food from a human rights perspective. One of the responsibilities of the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, a group of ten experts, is to monitor the implementation and respect for the right to adequate food as set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. To do so it requests specific information from states on a wide range of matters that are also of concern in the background papers prepared for the conference, for example, statistical data on the extent of hunger or malnutrition among such especially vulnerable groups as landless peasants, marginalized peasants, rural workers, rural unemployed, urban unemployed) urban poor, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, children, elderly people, and other particularly vulnerable groups. The request also asks for data on differences between the situation of men and women. In addition, governments are asked to indicate measures they consider necessary to guarantee access to adequate food for each of the vulnerable or disadvantaged groups and for the worse off areas, and for the full implementation of the right to food for both men and women.

The committee reviews this information and discusses it with representatives of the concerned governments, often at the ministerial level, and then draws conclusions and makes recommendations. These may concern not only the government, but also international organizations because the covenant expressly recognizes international assistance and cooperation as one of the means for achieving respect for the rights it proclaims.

Another committee of growing importance for discussing issues of hunger and malnutrition with governments and international organizations is the Committee on the Rights of the Child, whose dynamic approach to its mandate includes the involvement of international organizations in the committees' discussions of a country's report and, more important, in considering practical ways and means of responding to a country's needs for assistance. This tripartite approach, government committee-international development and assistance organizations, grounded in the involvement of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), could well provide an important framework for identifying problems and possible solutions and mobilizing assistance where needed.

These committees deal with countries from all regions and all levels of development, and provide an excellent framework for discussing hunger and malnutrition problems with countries that do not receive development assistance, and whose people consequently do not benefit from the concern and attention of development assistance organizations. The committees base their methods of work on dialogue and encouragement to progress whenever possible, and over time real and substantial results in policy evolution and actual practice can be and are achieved.

Sadly, certain situations of violations of human rights are of such a serious nature that the international community through the United Nations has set up specific investigation mechanisms to carry out inquiries and report to the General Assembly or the Commission on Human Rights. As necessary these reports deal with questions of hunger and malnutrition. In the late 1970s reports on the situation in Chile underlined the impact of government policies on nutritional standards, and today many of the reports presented to the Assembly and Commission contain such information, notably those on the situation in the former Yugoslavia. In these situations we must seek more direct and immediate means to come to the aid of those whose right to adequate food is being deliberately violated.

Promoting and protecting the right to food as a human right forms part of the United Nations overall effort to protect all human rights, economic, social, and cultural as well as civil and political, and dealing with extreme poverty and exclusion is part of that effort All are inter-related The background studies for this conference show that participation, NGOs, and the role of women are important elements in a strategy to combat hunger Studies by the Centre for Human Rights show, for example, that an impartial legal system is crucial to economic development Here we can refer to programs designed to train paralegals for rural areas, whose responsibilities are to help small farmers, peasants, and shop owners defend their property, produce, and investments. This has a measurable effect on economic development.

Few, if any, United Nations activities do not contribute to the Charter's human rights objectives. Furthermore, respect for human rights has much to contribute to attaining the objectives of the United Nations in its other activities. Isolated action in one domain, as we have seen from our failures and successes, is not viable over the long term.

Acting together for common goals is the fundamented message of the World Conference on Human Rights that last June, with the support of more than 170 governments, adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This Declaration and Programme of Action called for United Nations bodies, organs, and specialized agencies as well as regional organizations and international and regional finance and development institutions to work together for the promotion and protection of human rights. It called for specific action against discrimination; on behalf of minorities, indigenous people, and migrant workers for the equal status and human rights of women; and for the rights of children and such vulnerable groups as the extremely poor and socially excluded.

At Vienna, the participants emphasized strengthening the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights and seeking new and additional ways to promote those rights. Here we must stress the search for dialogue, the identification of problems, and the mobilization of assistance where needed over confrontation and condemnation, while remembering that respect for such classic rights as the rule of law and freedom of association are essential for long-term economic progress.

I would like to make a number of suggestions for strengthening the understanding and cooperation between human rights bodies and organizations that deal directly with hunger and malnutrition The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child could both increase their roles in fighting hunger. They need to know more about the complex hunger equation, and assistance and development institutions could learn more about human rights standards. I would encourage the organization of a meeting between the chairs of those two committees and perhaps one or two other committee members specifically interested in the subject and development and assistance experts from relevant institutions, perhaps with the participation of selected NGOs, to study the committees' contributions to antihunger strategy.

I also propose that such institutions and experts be more closely involved with the committees' consideration of reports, both before they are debated, for example, by providing comments or needed data, and afterward in the design and implementation of assistance projects.

I also believe that the secretariats involved have much to learn from each other I would welcome the secondment of selected staff from financial and development institutions to the Centre for Human Rights to share their knowledge and become acquainted with the human rights system Similarly, I would welcome the opportunity of sending staff from the Centre to such institutions to learn and to provide information, and eventually training, on human rights.

Reinforcing policy commitments to eliminate hunger will require the support of the NGO community and, in accordance with the call of the Vienna Declaration to associate both development and human rights NGOs more closely with our work, we could envisage a joint meeting with grassroots NGOs active in human rights and in development to explore concepts and action.

The Centre for Human Rights administers a program of advisory services and technical assistance in the field of human rights that helps governments to establish and strengthen democratic institutions and the structures of human rights and to train and educate those involved in the protection of human rights on a national level and in public information and awareness building Many of the programs' specific activities could help address the problems underlying hunger and malnutrition. We would welcome the possibility of discussing our country programs with experts from finance and development institutions to identify areas in which the Centre might help. Conversely, the Centre's expertise could help assistance, finance, and development organizations to identify areas in their programs where strengthening human rights would increase their chances of success.

The background papers of this conference clearly demonstrate the intimate connection between hunger, poverty, and exclusion and show the main areas in which respect for human rights has an important role to play in corrective actions. Should we not look at these together? A well-prepared consultation on the role of development assistance and respect for human rights in combating poverty and exclusion that would bring together experts from all fields might be useful One result could be to identify types of human rights assistance that could directly help to solve those problems.

Close cooperation with the Centre for Human Rights, and in particular its expert bodies, is crucial to ensure that on human rights matters the.

United Nations maintains a consistent and coherent position. Patient efforts over the years have enabled the United Nations to adopt and interpret a broad range of standards in the field of human rights. These are the standards states have accepted and to which they are held accountable. It would serve no purpose and would be extremely count productive for some organizations to develop their own standards and for states to be faced with different criteria depending on which organization they are dealing with I give prime importance to working closely with all organizations and institutions to enable the United Nations to speak on human rights with one voice.

The challenges to us all to eliminate hunger and malnutrition are serious and difficult, and success will depend on our combined efforts I wish to take this opportunity to pledge the full support of the United Nations human rights program to that objective.