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close this bookHuman Rights, Health and Nutrition (ACC/SCN, 1999, 32 p.)
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View the documentThe UN System’s Forum for Nutrition Sub-Committee on Nutrition (ACC/SCN)
View the documentForeword
View the documentThe 3rd Annual Abraham Horwitz Annual Lecture
View the documentAppendix A - Human Rights Matrices
View the documentAppendix B - The General Comment on the Right to Food
View the documentAcronyms
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(introduction...)

Abraham Horwitz Annual Lecture

Brigit C A Toebes - 3rd Abraham Horwitz Lecture - April 1999

The UN System’s Forum for Nutrition Sub-Committee on Nutrition (ACC/SCN)

The Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), comprised of the heads of the UN Agencies, recommended the establishment of the Sub-Committee on Nutrition (SCN) in 1977, following the World Food Conference (with particular reference to Resolution V on food and nutrition). This was approved by the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). The UN members of the SCN are the ADB, FAO, IAEA, IFAD, ILO, UN, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCHR, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNRISD, UNU, WFP, WHO and the World Bank. From the outset, representatives of bilateral donor agencies have participated actively in SCN activities. The Secretariat is hosted by WHO in Geneva.

The mandate of the ACC/SCN is to serve as the UN focal point for promoting harmonized nutrition policies and strategies throughout the UN system, and to strengthen collaboration with other partners for accelerated and more effective action against malnutrition. The aim of the SCN is to raise awareness of and concern for nutrition problems at global, regional and national levels; to refine the direction, increase the scale and strengthen the coherence and impact of actions against malnutrition worldwide; and to promote cooperation among UN agencies and partner organizations. The SCN’s annual meetings have representation from UN Agencies, donor agencies and NGOs; these meetings begin with symposia on subjects of current importance for policy. The SCN brings such matters to the attention of the ACC and coordinates working groups on specialized areas of nutrition.

The SCN compiles and disseminates information on nutrition, reflecting the shared views of the agencies concerned. Regular reports on the world nutrition situation are issued and external resources to address nutrition problems are assessed. Nutrition Policy Papers are produced to summarize current knowledge on selected topics. SCN News is published biannually, and the RNIS is published quarterly. As decided by the Sub-Committee, initiatives are taken to promote coordinated activities - inter-agency programmes, meetings, publications - aimed at reducing malnutrition, primarily in developing countries.

Editor: Judith Pojda, PhD
Cover Illustration: R Michaluk, AGL Productions

© UN ACC Sub-Committee on Nutrition, 1999

Readers are encouraged to review, abstract, reproduce or translate this document in part or in whole, but as copyright holder, the UN ACC/SCN Secretariat requests due acknowledgement. Use other than for education or non-commercial purposes requires explicit prior authorization in writing from the ACC/SCN Secretariat. Original illustrations are the sole property of ACC/SCN.

Chairman: Richard Jolly
Special Advisor to the Administrator
United Nations Development Programme
One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017, USA
Telephone: 1 212 906 5764, Fax: 1 212 906 6661
EMail: Richard.Jolly@undp.org

Technical Secretary: Sonya Rabeneck
ACC/SCN c/o World Health Organization
20, Avenue Appia
CH-121 1 Geneva 27, Switzerland
Telephone: 41-22 791 04 56, Fax: 41-22 798 88 91
EMail: accscn@who.ch

Website http://www.unsystem.org/accscn

Foreword

Dr Abraham Horwitz was Assistant Director of the National Health Service in Chile from 1953 to 1959, Director of the Pan American Health Organization from 1959 to 1975, Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Nutrition 1986-1995, and is currently Director Emeritus, Pan American Health Organization. The Abraham Horwitz Lecture was introduced to the Sub-Committee on Nutrition’s agenda in March 1997 at its 24th Annual Session, in recognition of Dr Abraham Horwitz’ outstanding contribution to nutrition, and his exemplary leadership as Chairman of the Sub-Committee.

In an interview in SCN News No. 13, 1995, just after his retirement as Chairman of the SCN, Dr Horwitz sent a message to those working in nutrition “Keep the faith that you are committed to a most noble cause, the well-being of people whom you do not know but whose needs you feel intensely. Redouble your efforts in whatever you do in nutrition while being bold and imaginative.” The intention of the annual Lecture is to continue to promote Dr Horwitz’ heartfelt, highly valued and extremely generous tradition of mentoring young talent from developing countries. Each year a guest lecturer who possesses the knowledge and commitment to prepare a “bold and imaginative” paper is invited to make a presentation at the SCN Session.

The Third Abraham Horwitz Lecture was given in April 1999, at the SCN’s 26th Session Symposium on “The Substance and Politics of a Human Rights Approach to Food and Nutrition Policies and Programmes” by Dr Brigit C A Toebes. Dr Toebes spoke on the subject of “Human Rights, Health and Nutrition”. Dr Toebes is Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator at the TMC Asser Institute for International Law, The Hague, The Netherlands. She holds a PhD in international human rights law from the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) of Utrecht University, and is the author of The Right to Health as a Human Right in International Law. Dr Toebes co-founded the International Anti-Poverty Law Center (IAPLC), a New York-based NGO. For this lecture, she is indebted to Maria Green, Director of IAPLC.

Keep the faith that you are committed to a most noble cause, the well-being of people whom you do not know but whose needs you feel intensely.

Redouble your efforts in whatever you do in nutrition while being bold and imaginative.


Abraham Horwitz

The 3rd Annual Abraham Horwitz Annual Lecture

The entitlements that have to be promoted for eliminating persistent undernutrition are not merely of food, but also of health care, medical attention and epidemiological environment.

(Dr and Sen, 1989)

Introduction

The human rights approach offers a framework for analyzing governmental actions in the field of nutrition and health. Food and nutrition specialists should incorporate the human rights approach in addressing malnutrition, inadequate health, and poverty issues. International human rights law is relevant for the protection of people’s access to food, and in this regard, I will focus on the meaning and implications of the right to health and the right to food, and on the implications of the fact that they are recognized as ‘economic, social and cultural’ human rights under international law. I will provide examples of what might possibly constitute governmental violations of these two human rights. It should be taken into account that my particular expertise is in health as a human right.

The ultimate purpose of nutritionists is to improve the nutritional status of the world’s population. I will explain the legal structure for preventing States’ human rights violations in this field and for holding States accountable for violations when they occur. In addition, I will suggest that food and nutrition specialists can contribute to a further clarification of the rights to adequate food and health. While the lawyers draw the broad frameworks for these rights, it is the nutritional and health specialists who have the expertise to delineate their precise content.

Human Rights protection for food and health

The international human rights laws that protect people’s access to food and health include both rights that are primarily ‘civil and political’ in nature and rights that are considered ‘economic, social and cultural rights’. The simultaneous relevance of these two kinds of human rights to food and health exemplifies the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights - civil, cultural, economic, political, and social - as set forth during the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 (United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, 1993).

Civil and political rights

Civil and political rights are set forth in various human rights instruments, the most important of which is the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). They include, inter alia, the right to life, the right to a fair trial and the freedom of expression and of religion. They are not necessarily freedom or ‘negative’ rights only, since they can also require States to take a certain ‘positive’ actions, e.g., to reorganize the judiciary system in order to guarantee the right to a fair trial.

The right of all persons to be treated equally under the law, without discrimination, is generally considered a civil or political right, and is confirmed in every international human rights treaty (ICCPR, CERD, CEDAW, etc.). This legal protection against discrimination applies as much to social laws affecting access to food and to health as to political laws affecting access to justice and electoral enfranchisement.

Other civil and political rights are similarly important in protecting people’s health and nutritional status. For example, the (civil and political) right to take part in the conduct of public affairs enables people to change their food or health situation at a political level (ICCPR Article 25). The right to peaceful assembly (ICCPR Article 21) and to freedom of expression play a similar role. Through the right to receive and impart information, moreover, people can inform each other about, for example, how to grow crops and how to avoid infectious diseases (ICCPR Article 19(2)).

Enforceability of health and food issues through civil and political rights

At a more enforceable level, civil and political rights may serve for the protection of people’s health and food status. That is to say, health and food issues may be enforced through implementation procedures that are available for civil and political rights, e.g. reporting procedures and individual complaint procedures. Much depends, in this regard, of the creativity of lawyers and others to apply these rights.

Reporting procedures - The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) (the UN body charged with overseeing implementation of the ICCPR) has declared that the civil and political right to life protects certain health and food concerns. In its General Comment 6 [16], it stipulated that it would be desirable for States parties to take ‘all positive measures to reduce infant mortality and to increase life expectancy, especially by adopting measures to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics’ (UN Human Rights Committee 1985). In its reporting procedure, the HRC occasionally gives follow-up to this statement by paying attention to infant and child mortality rates in States Parties (Toebes, 1999, p. 160).

Complaint procedures - Case law on civil and political rights demonstrates that several health and food-related issues have been addressed within the framework of civil and political rights’ complaint procedures. Among other things, such cases concerned the obligation to provide access to health care services (including the obligation not to deprive people from medical treatment), the obligation to offer protection against environmental health threats, and the obligation to offer adequate nutrition and medical treatment during (pre-trial) detention. In particular the right to life, the right to physical integrity, the right to family life, the right to enjoy one’s own culture and the right to non-discrimination have offered protection against threats to people’s health and nutritional status before various judicial bodies. The following decisions of the HRC illustrate this:

· In the case of Conroy Levy v. Jamaica (HRC 719/1996), the author of the complaint (a detainee) stated that he was ‘detained twenty-three hours a day in a cell with no mattress, other bedding or furniture, that the cell has no natural light and inadequate sanitation, and that the food is not palatable’. The HRC found that these circumstances disclosed a violation of ICCPR Article 10(1) (the right of detained persons to be treated with dignity). Clearly, the right of detained persons to be treated with dignity was considered to include a right to adequate health, sanitation, and food.

· A Russian citizen with tuberculosis declared before the HRC that his right to life was threatened because of lack of money for medicine due to the hyperinflation in the Russian Federation (HRC 784/1997). The complaint was declared inadmissible because it did not substantiate why the hyperinflation would amount to a violation of the rights in the ICCPR. Nevertheless, the case shows that a right to medical care may arise within the framework of the right to life.

At the national level, health and food issues have also been addressed within the framework of civil and political rights that are set forth in national constitutions and in international human rights conventions. Noteworthy in this respect is the case law of the Indian Supreme Court:

· In the case of Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Sanity and others v. State of West Bengal and another, the claimant, who had fallen off a train and as a result had suffered serious injuries, was turned away by various public hospitals (A.I.R. 1996). The Court ruled that the failure on the part of a Government hospital to provide timely medical treatment to a person in need of such treatment results in a violation of his right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Accordingly, the right to life in the Indian constitution was considered to embrace a right to emergency medical care.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Economic and social rights can be found in, inter alia, the 1966 ICESCR. They include the right to adequate food, health and housing, as well as the right to education and the right to work. They were specifically designed as a whole to protect people’s health and nutritional status as well as other aspects of an adequate standard of living. Just as civil and political rights are important for the protection of economic and social rights, so are the specific economic and social rights relevant to each other. The (economic and social) right to education, for example, may enable people to learn about how to grow their crops. Adequate housing has proven to be of crucial importance for people’s health, and healthy conditions are considered an explicit element of the right to housing.

During the United World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, it was stressed that civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are interdependent, interrelated and of equal importance. In practice, particularly Western States and NGOs have tended to treat economic, social and cultural rights as if they were of less importance than civil and political rights. Reasons for this weaker status are their lack of conceptual clarity, their programmatic character, and the fear of States that recognition of these rights will interfere with their policy choices and will be expensive.

Human rights law, by definition, consists of legal obligations that fall upon the State. It is therefore of use to clarify which obligations result from the separate human rights. A well-known concept in human rights debate concerns the so-called ‘tri-partite typology of State obligations’ (Eide, 1987, Van Hoof, 1984). The ‘respect, protect, fulfil’ typology has been accepted by numerous scholars and NGOs specializing in the field, as well as by the UN. With regard to food, education and health, matrixes have been drawn up containing the various obligations (see Appendix A) (Eide, 1987; Coomans, 1992; Toebes, 1999).

This typology distinguishes between obligations to ‘respect’, to ‘protect’ and to ‘fulfil’ a human right, particularly an economic, social or cultural right. Such obligations to respect, protect and fulfil are inherent to all (economic, social and cultural) human rights. Obligations to respect are more negative in character and require a certain type of State abstention. On the basis of the right to food, for example, States are required to abstain from actively interfering with the access of individuals (say, members of an ethnic minority) to adequate food. Obligations to protect and to fulfil are more positive obligations, in that they oblige States to undertake certain action. On the basis of the obligation to protect the right to food, for example, States are required to adopt the necessary legislation in order to secure safe food production conditions in the factories of private manufacturers. The obligation to fulfil the right to food may require that States take measures to ensure that people have adequate access to food. This typology is more elaborately discussed below.

The right to health and the right to food

Food is important for health because undernourishment makes people vulnerable to illness. Adequate nutrition is of the utmost importance for the healthy development of mothers and children. Some of the main causes of malnutrition are inadequate care for mothers and children, insufficient health services and an unhealthy environment (UN ACC/SCN 1996). Health is, simultaneously, important for food, e.g., because parasitic and other diseases hamper the absorption and retention of nourishment. More generally, adequate health is a condition for people in which they are able to obtain the foodstuffs necessary for their survival and the maintenance of their health (Dr and Sen 1989, p. 267). The most important rights with regard to the maintenance of people’s health and their access to food are accordingly the ‘right to health’ and the ‘right to food’. These human rights grant a number of health-and food-related services and freedoms.

The rights to health and to food are interrelated and have a strong normative overlap. More specifically, CEDAW Article 12 contains the right to health and refers to adequate nutrition during pregnancy, while the CRC Article 24(2) refers to the ‘right to adequate nutritious foods’ for children. A right to healthy foodstuffs is therefore explicitly part of the right to health. One could even claim that the right to food is inherent in the right to health. Similarly, the right to health is heavily implicated in the right to food. Although ICESCR Article 11 stipulates the right to food and does not explicitly refer to health, it is obvious that a right to healthy foodstuffs is an element of the right to food.

This relationship between food and health is demonstrated by the implementation practice of the CESCR, the treaty-monitoring body of the ICESCR. In the context of the right to health, this Committee deals with a number of issues that have both food and health implications. Examples include the high incidence of cardiovascular diseases in a certain country due to an incorrect diet; and a case in which a country was allegedly exporting radioactively contaminated foods (Toebes 1999, p. 123).

Taking into account the interrelated character of both human rights, it is of importance to demarcate more strictly the meaning of the separate rights to health and to food. Given the conceptual lack of clarity that surrounds economic, social and cultural rights, it is important to ask ourselves the question: what is the right to health, and what is the right to food?

The right to health

Where we can find it? - The right to health is firmly embedded in a considerable number of international human rights instruments. Its first international codification was in the Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO 1946). This provision constituted a point of departure for the further codification of the right to health in several international human rights treaties, the most important and well-known of which is ICESCR Article 12.

Its scope - The right to health can be said to embrace two larger parts: one including elements related to ‘health care’ (including medical care as well as preventive health care services), and another one concerning ‘underlying preconditions for health’ (including safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, occupational health, health-related information).

Its core content - Certain aspects of the right to health may be subject to ‘progressive realization’ (ICESCR Article 2(1)), which implies that States may gradually realize such aspects rather than realizing them immediately. The exploration of new treatments for certain ailments, for example, is an obligation which cannot be realized immediately but only gradually. Poorer States will have fewer resources available to provide the necessary health services to everyone, so that they may progressively seek to achieve a better standard of health. Nevertheless, there is a trend among scholars and activists towards delineating a certain core in the right to health. This core content consists of a set of elements that States have to guarantee under any circumstances, irrespective of their available resources. Inspiration for the core content of the right to health can be derived from the Primary Health Care strategy of the World Health Organization (WHO, 1978). The elements listed below may serve as the core content of the right to health.

Concerning health care:

· maternal and child health care, including family planning
· immunization against the major infectious diseases
· appropriate treatment of common diseases and injuries
· provision of essential drugs

Concerning underlying preconditions for health:

· education concerning prevailing health problems and the methods of preventing and controlling them

· promotion of food supply and proper nutrition

· adequate supply of safe water and basic sanitation

Guiding principles - In addition, there exist a number of guiding principles that together constitute the framework of the right to health. Like the core content of the right to health, they are sufficiently flexible to allow for universal application. In this context, the term ‘health services’ refers both to access to health care services as well as to services necessary for the underlying preconditions to health. I suggest the following guiding principles for the right to health:

· availability of health services: a State must provide health services sufficient for the population as a whole

· financial, geographic and cultural accessibility of health services: health services must be affordable, within reach of everyone, and respect people’s cultural traditions

· quality of health services: the available health services must be of an adequate standard

· equality in access to available health services: health services must be equally accessible to everyone, with due attention paid to the position of vulnerable groups in society (Toebes, 1999, pp. 287-288)

Given the fact that access to adequate food is an explicit part of the right to food, these guiding principles are also relevant for the adequate protection of people’s nutritional status. For example, they require that food be sufficiently available and geographically accessible, affordable, and safe.

State obligations - On the basis of the above-described elements of the right to health, State obligations can now be defined. The following obligations to respect, protect and to fulfil constitute examples of the aggregate of obligations resulting from the right to health (Toebes, 1999, pp. 314-315):

obligations to respect:

· to respect equal access to available health services, and not to impede individuals or groups from their access to the available services

· to refrain from acts that encroach upon people’s health, such as environmental pollution


obligations to protect:

· to take legislative and other measures to assure that people have (equal) access to health services even if provided by private health care parties

· to take legislative and other measures to protect people from health infringements by any private or public health care parties

obligations to fulfil:

· to adopt a national health policy and to devote a sufficient percentage of the available budget to health

· to provide the necessary health services, or to create conditions under which individuals have adequate and sufficient access to health services, including preventative and curative health care services as well as clean drinking water and adequate sanitation

Given that ‘health services’ include adequate food, access to food is an explicit part of the above-mentioned obligations. For example, the obligation to respect would require that the government refrain from acts that encroach upon people’s access to food (e.g., forcibly relocating people from a place where there are means of self-support to a place where there is none).

The right to health and harmful traditional practices

A specific issue that arises within the framework of the right to health concerns the problems surrounding ‘harmful traditional practices’. CRC Article 24(3) refers to the ‘abolishment of traditional practices’, which refers to girl-child circumcision and to other practices ‘prejudicial to the health of children’. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the right to health articles of the ICESCR and CEDAW, the CESCR and CEDAW Committees deal with the matter in their reporting practices.

CRC Article 24(3) uses the broad term ‘harmful practices’ in order to avoid mentioning female circumcision specifically and additionally, to prevent other practices from being excluded. Other such practices could include facial scarring, problems surrounding dowries and ‘crimes of honor’, early marriage, adolescent childbearing, teenage pregnancies, ritual enslavement of girls, selective abortion, and female infanticide. There are also traditional practices that have a particular relation to food. These are, for example, traditional birth practices such as dietary restrictions, force-feeding for women or preferential treatment for male children such as differential feeding patterns (Working Group on Traditional Practices, 1986/Third report by Halima Embarek, 1999, para. 20).

CEDAW, CESCR, and the CRC Committee have addressed the issue of harmful traditional practices on various occasions. For example, CESCR remarked in 1994 with respect to Mali that legislation in effect for 30 years prohibiting such practices had never been enforced (UN Doc. E/C.12/1994/17, para 14). And in 1997 the CRC Committee recommended Ghana to review all legislation to ensure compliance with the CRC and to develop public campaigns involving all sectors of society with a view to changing attitudes (UN Doc. CRC/C/15/Add.73, 6 June 1997, paras 21 and 42). Recently, Ghana has prohibited several traditional practices illegal under the new Criminal Code (Halima Embarek, 1999, para. 46).

The right to health and privatization of health care services

In most countries public and private health care sectors exist side-by-side. Some States encourage the participation of the private sector in the delivery and management of health services. Privatization of health care services may threaten the (equal) accessibility of health care services, since some private health insurance companies are not open to all citizens and do not treat everyone on an equal footing.

On the basis of the right to health, plans to privatize health care services do not in any way relieve Governments from their obligation to make sure that everyone has access to good quality health care services. To the extent that good quality health care services are not privately available and accessible to everyone, governments should provide health care services publicly. They should make sure that health insurance benefits do not become tied to a person’s particular status, e.g., employment or civil state. Secondly, they should adopt legislation and other measures to ensure that private health providers do not discriminate among their clients.

The right to health and civil and political rights

Finally, it is possible that a certain tension arises between the right to health and civil and political rights, particularly the rights to physical integrity and privacy. On some occasions, measures taken for the protection of the population at large or an individual, may violate the civil and political rights of someone else.

First, it is possible that on the basis of the right to health, the authorities take certain measures for the protection of the health of the population at large. For example, the right to health may require the adoption of inoculation programs in order to prevent the incidence of certain diseases, or the implementation of screening programs in order to prevent the incidence of certain types of cancer. The problems surrounding certain infectious diseases raise illustrative but complicated questions in this regard. For example, a person could be forced to undergo a vaccination for polio, not only for his own benefit, but also because the public at large has a right to be protected against the spread of polio. The question arises, whether the interests of the individual or those of the public at large should prevail. Similar questions may arise surrounding measures taken to protect the public against the spread of HIV/AIDS. Some States are inclined to take certain coercive measures in order to reduce the spread of AIDS. States have adopted transit restrictions, mandatory testing, and even criminal liability for HIV-infected persons (Toebes, pp. 133-135).

Secondly, situations may arise where, on the basis of the right to health, a doctor or the public authorities seek to protect an individual to the detriment of civil and political rights of someone else. A good example concerns situations where pregnant women likely to be HIV-positive refuse to be tested, despite the fact that the unborn child could be provided with life-saving drugs if the mother were known to be HIV-positive. The question arises whether the mother can be forced to undergo the test in order to protect the (right to) health of the unborn. Similar situations may arise if HIV-infected mothers insist on breastfeeding their child, which may risk infection of their child. In SCN News of July 1999, a clear example is provided of such a case. In this case, the child was taken under legal custody and the court subsequently ruled that the parents could retain physical custody on the condition that the mother would not breastfeed the child (see p. 89). In such cases, the question arises whether the mother can be forced to stop breastfeeding. In other words, a balance has to be struck between the assumed right to health of the unborn and the right to physical integrity and privacy of the mother.

Caution is to be observed if the right to health is used to justify certain types of governmental health measures. In each specific case, a balance has to be drawn between the need to protect the health of the public at large (infectious or other diseases) or the individual (e.g., the unborn) on the one hand and individual interests (e.g., the HIV-infected mother) on the other. As George Kent has argued in the above-mentioned breastfeeding case, ‘patients themselves make the final decisions regarding their care, on the basis of informed consent’. And ‘only in exceptional circumstances the state may override this principle’ (SCN News p. 89).

The right to food

The ICESCR Article 11 explicitly states a separate and well-elaborated right to food in Article 11. A similar analysis to that made of the right to health can be made of the separate right to food. This right has been examined in great detail by scholars and activists, including a comprehensive report by Asbjide in his role as a UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, which has been updated last year (Eide 1987 and 1999). Recently, CESCR adopted its 12th General Comment on the right to adequate food, which gives an authoritative interpretation of Article 11 ICESCR. I will present a quick overview of the right as a whole, set the conceptual framework, and then discuss those aspects of the right to food that relate most closely to the right to health.

Core Content - CESCR General Comment No. 12 recognizes that States have a ‘core obligation to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger as provided for in paragraph 2 of article 11, even in times of natural and other disasters’ (CESCR GC No. 12, paragraph 12). It considers that the core content implies:

The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture; The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other rights. (Paragraph 8).

The terms ‘dietary needs’ and ‘free from adverse substances’ are elaborately explained in the General Comment (paragraphs 9-10). ‘Dietary needs’ requires, for example, measures to enhance dietary diversity and appropriate consumption and feeding patterns. ‘Free from adverse substances’ requires measures to prevent contamination of foodstuffs.

The core content in this General Comment is somewhat more general in character than the one proposed for the right to health (see above). Contrary to the core content defined for the right to health, this definition seems to refer to the full content of the right and not to a ‘minimum’. This definition leaves undefined what a package of ‘minimum needs’ of food should at least consist of. A UN ACC/SCN document shows that nutrition specialists can make a contribution to the definition of this package of ‘minimum needs’. It enumerates three indicators constituting ‘basic minimum needs’ for adequate food and nutrition:

· Proper nutrition surveillance from birth to five years and no moderate and severe PEM (protein-energy malnutrition).

· School children receive adequate food for nutritional requirements.

· Pregnant women receive adequate and proper food, and delivery of newborn babies with birth weight no less than 3,000 g.

These indicators were used as a way to determine problems and their priorities as a basis for planning intervention activities as well as to monitor and evaluate their results (ACC/SCN, 1996, p. 74). These are the kinds of indicators that could, perhaps, be used to delineate what constitutes a minimum package of nutrition and as such provide inspiration for the definition of the core content of the right to food.

Guiding principles - Within the framework of the above-definition of the core content of the right to food in the General Comment, a number of ‘guiding principles’ are mentioned, similar to the ones that have been formulated for the right to health. For the right to health, States were to safeguard the ‘availability’, the (geographic, financial and cultural) ‘accessibility’ and the ‘quality’ of the health services. According to the General Comment on the right to food, ‘availability’, (cultural or consumer) ‘acceptability’ and (economic and physical) ‘accessibility’ make up the (core) content of the right to food:

· Availability: ‘the possibilities either for feeding oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources, or for well functioning distribution, processing and market systems that can move food from the site of production to where it is needed in accordance with demand’ (paragraph 12)

· Cultural or consumer acceptability: ‘the need also to take into account, as far as possible, perceived non nutrient-based values attached to food and food consumption and informed consumer concerns regarding the nature of accessible food supplies’ (paragraph 11)

· Economic and physical accessibility: ‘Economic accessibility implies that personal or household financial costs associated with the acquisition of food for an adequate diet should be at a level such that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised.... Physical accessibility implies that adequate food must be accessible to everyone, including physically vulnerable individuals....’ (paragraph 13).

Respect, protect, fulfil - The tri-partite typology of state obligations, that is, the duty to respect, protect, and fulfil, is as central to the clarification of State obligations resulting from the right to food as it is to the clarification of the right to health. Eide uses the typology in his report on the right to food, including in his “food security matrix” (Eide 1987). In addition, the General Comment on the right to food discusses these obligations (paragraph 15):

Obligations to respect:

· ‘not to take any measures that result in preventing such access’

Obligations to protect:

· ‘measures to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to food’

Obligations to fulfil:

· ‘to facilitate: to proactively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security’

· ‘to provide: to provide the right to food directly whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to food by the means at their disposal’

International dimension - There are reasons to assume that the right to food, perhaps more than other economic and social rights, has an international dimension. Although economic and social rights must primarily address human rights in a national context, it can be maintained that States have, on the basis of the right to food, international obligations regarding world food security.

Statistics show that if the total amount of food produced was equally distributed throughout the world, there would be more than enough for all to realize their right to food. There is, however, an enormous difference in food production between the industrialized countries and the Third World (Eide 1987, sections 14-18). The issues of international humanitarian assistance and the importance of fair trade cannot be ignored. ICESCR Article 11 which contains the right to food, mentions international assistance and cooperation explicitly. In addition, ICESCR Article 2(1) refers to international assistance and cooperation more generally.

Such international assistance and cooperation could include measures to ensure that poor countries do not face too many restrictions in the access to the markets of the more wealthy countries. This access should not be hampered by trade embargoes, discriminatory subsidies, investment or trade rules which may jeopardize the vital food supply of a State’s population (Dr and Sen, 1989, p. 273 and FIAN, 1997).

The General Comment on the right to food mentions the following concrete international State obligations (paragraphs 36-37):

· ‘to take steps to respect and protect the enjoyment of the right to food in other countries, to facilitate access to food and to provide the necessary aid when required’

· ‘to ensure that - whenever relevant, due attention is given to the right to food in international agreements and to consider the development of further international agreements to that end’

· ‘to refrain from food embargoes or similar measures which endanger conditions for food production and access to food in other countries’

Possible violations of the rights to food and to health

In order to examine in more detail the overlap between the right to food and the right to health, I will discuss specific governmental duties with regard to the obligations for each right, and give examples of governmental actions that violate international legal obligations that each right entails.

Respect - The obligation to respect the rights to health and food is clearly violated if individuals or groups are excluded from available health and nutritional services. For example, if a Government excludes immigrants from access to basic medical services, this may constitute a violation of the obligation to respect the right to health. The obligation to respect the right to health can also be violated if a State encroaches upon people’s health by, for example, the use or testing of nuclear or chemical weapons or by engaging in other (environmental) activities that are detrimental to people’s health (Toebes, 1999, pp. 325-325). The right to food may in this regard be violated if governments prevent people from growing their crops by, for example, arbitrarily taking away their land. One could also think of governmental activities like the blocking of food transports, or the poisoning of the land by running an oil-producing facility which makes the land unarable (CESR Manual, 1999, p. 35).

Protect - The obligation to protect the right to health is violated if the authorities do not take the necessary legislative and other measures to assure that, if health services are privately provided, such services are provided equally for all vulnerable groups in society. States will need to adopt necessary legislation in order to assure that private providers of health services take into account the principles of accessibility and equality. It is important to note also that if the provision of health services is privately organized, States remain responsible, on the basis of the right to health, for the equal and adequate provision of these services. Making necessary alterations, a similar analysis applies to the right to food. Violations may occur if governments do not take the necessary legislative and other measures in order to ensure the accessibility, availability and acceptability of food. For example, a government may violate the right to food if it allows an oil company to operate in inhabited areas without enforcing environmental protection laws. Or, for example, if it fails to restrain practices that force indigenous peoples to abandon their traditional food-production or gathering practices (CESR Manual 1999, p. 36). Finally, governments violate the rights to health (and possibly also the right to food) if they do not take adequate measures (which might include the adoption of legislation) to prevent the incidence of ‘harmful traditional practices’.

Fulfil - The obligation to fulfil concerns the positive obligation to make sure that health and food is accessible to everyone (to ‘facilitate’ and to ‘provide’). Given its programmatic character, this obligation is difficult to pinpoint. It is difficult to indicate exactly what States are required to do in order to comply with obligations to fulfil. Which health and food services exactly should be made available in order for States to comply with their obligations under the rights to health and food? In this regard it may be of use to make an assessment of statistical data that provide insight into governmental health and food expenditures. How much of their general budget do governments devote to health, to food and to poverty alleviation more generally? The following data were presented in, inter alia, the State reports to the CESCR, and compared to the data from the UNDP and the World Bank:

Table 1. Governmental health expenditures


ICESCR State Reports:

UNDP (1990)

World Bank (1991)

Algeria

5.5 (1989)

5.4

-

The Netherlands

9.3 (1995)

-

12.4

The Philippines

6.0 (1992)

1.0

4.2

South Korea

2.4 (1990)

2.7

2.0

Tunisia

8.0 (1989)

3.3

6.3

Uruguay

6.8 (1987)

2.5

4.5

Source: ICESCR reports; UNDP, 1995; World Bank 1993

Before an assessment of data in Table 1 is made, caution is required when comparing statistics from various sources. Firstly, almost all of the countries mentioned appear more positive about their health expenditure than the statistics provided by the UNDP and the World Bank would seem to warrant. A possible explanation may be that the years to which these figures relate do not always correspond. This cannot entirely explain, however, the striking differences between some of the figures in the State reports and the UNDP and the World Bank reports. It is possible that some States misrepresent the facts, perhaps in order to suggest that they spend more on health than they actually do. In addition, however, there are large unexplained differences between the statistics provided by the UNDP and the World Bank. Secondly, general health expenditure figures do not indicate how the resources are distributed among the various groups of society. They do not make clear to what extent vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the economically deprived and prisoners, profit from the available resources.

Taking into account the shortcomings of the use of such indicators, expenditure statistics may still help to draw rough conclusions on governmental commitments made regarding health and other socio-economic needs. Some States devote only very little of their budget to health. For example, according to World Bank statistics, South Korea devoted only two percent of its GNP to health in 1991 (Table 1). Such an observation may lead to the prima facie conclusion that South Korea does not comply with its obligations under the right to health. It may also be illustrative to compare the proportion of military expenditure in a country’s total expenditure with expenditures on health, education, and other social facilities (see Table 2).

These statistics show, for example, that in South Korea defense spending in 1991 was more than ten times as high as health expenditure, whereas in the case of the Philippines and Uruguay it was approximately double. Such comparisons may lead to the conclusion that these States fail to comply with the right to health to the ‘maximum of their available resources’ as set forth in ICESCR Article 2 (1). There are no indications as to what an appropriate ratio percentage should be for health and for defense. As part of its “Health for All” strategy, WHO used a five percent figure as a benchmark for monitoring relative amounts of health spending across countries. It is, however, no longer a target. No benchmark percentages exist for defense expenditure because defense is dependent on the strategic position of a country and the extent to which a country is under threat (and needs to arm itself).

Table 2. Governmental health and defense expenditures


Health

Defense

The Netherlands

12.4

4.8

The Philippines

4.2

10.9

South Korea

2.0

22.2

Tunisia

6.3

5.6

Uruguay

4.5

9.2

Source: World Bank, 1993, pp. 258-259

A second important assessment of possible violations concerns an analysis of distribution of social services among the various population groups. As mentioned above, one should not only look at general social expenditures, but also at how the various expenditures are distributed among the various population groups. This concerns the guiding principles of the geographic, financial and cultural accessibility. A State may violate the right to health if it structurally fails to offer adequate health services to certain segments of society, such as prisoners, illegal immigrants, or women, or people living in remote, rural areas. For example, as mentioned in the 1996 ACC/SCN report “How Nutrition Improves”:

There are many countries where health expenditure, although substantial, is skewed towards curative health care in large hospitals in developed urban areas, rather than improving outreach of good quality primary health care to marginalized communities.

(ACC/SCN 1996, p. 47)

A human rights analysis of statistical data should, therefore, also examine the extent to which various expenditures are distributed among the various population groups.

Enforceability of the rights to health and food through economic, social and cultural rights

Reporting procedures - At present, supervision of economic, social and cultural rights takes place almost entirely by means of reporting procedures. In spite of its non-binding character, the reporting procedure can be considered to have certain judicial traits. At the end of each reporting session, the various treaty monitoring bodies adopt a ‘Concluding Comment’ with respect to the practice in the reporting State. To a certain extent such Concluding Comments take the character of legal decisions. For example, with respect to Kuwait, the CRC Committee adopted the following Concluding Comment:

The Committee is concerned at the high level of malnutrition among children in the State party, mainly due to poor nutrition. The Committee recommends that the State party take all appropriate measures, such as awareness-raising campaigns in and outside schools and counseling, to sensitize adults, especially parents and domestic servants, and children alike to the importance of quality nutrition.

(CRC/C/15/Add.96)

Regarding Mexico, the CESCR remarked:

The Committee urges the State party to continue taking more effective measures to ensure access to basic health-care services for all children and to combat malnutrition, especially among children belonging to indigenous groups living in rural and remote areas.

(E/C.12/1/Add.41)

Complaint procedures - Regarding complaint procedures for the rights to health and food, it can be observed that courts and other (quasi-) judicial bodies are generally reluctant to found their decisions on these rights. At the international level no complaints procedures are yet in force for economic, social and cultural rights, with the exception of the collective complaints procedure of the European Social Charter (Council of Europe). At the national level courts are generally inclined to argue that economic, social and cultural rights are not ‘justiciable’, i.e., not susceptible to judicial review. They argue that economic, social and cultural rights are too vague, and that due to their programmatic content, they would imply policy measures which belong to the discretionary power of the State.

Yet in spite of these obstacles, examples can be mentioned of international as well as national cases in which the decision was founded on the rights to food, health, and other economic, social and cultural rights. Although they are not always successful, such examples provide a valuable basis for future court cases:

· In 1993, the World Health Organization submitted a request for an advisory opinion to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It wanted the ICJ to address the question whether the use of nuclear weapons is illegal and inter alia, violates the right to health in the WHO Constitution. The ICJ argued that it was not able to give the Advisory Opinion because ‘the question did not arise within the scope of activities of the WHO’ since the WHO Constitution would not provide for ‘the competence to address the legality of nuclear weapons’ (ICJ, general List No. 95). Nevertheless, this case shows that such health issues may be raised before international courts in the future.

· A clear example of a case in which the right to health was considered justiciable is the Yanomani case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR 1985). Construction of a highway compelled the Yanomani Indians in Brazil to abandon their homes and to seek refuge in other places. Among other rights, the petitioners cited Article XI of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (ADHR), the right to the ‘preservation of health and to well-being’. The IACHR concluded that Brazil had, inter alia, violated the right to health in Article XI ADHR and recommended Brazil to ‘take preventive and curative health measures to protect the lives and health of Indians exposed to infectious or contagious diseases’ (Toebes, pp. 185-186). Accordingly, the IACHR explicitly declared that the right to health in the ACHR was violated.

At the national level, economic and social rights can in principle be enforced through national courts. Cases can be based on the rights in the national constitution and on international human rights set forth in treaties to which the country concerned is a party. In some countries the rights to health and food are not constitutionally entrenched. In such countries legislation-based rights to health and food may nevertheless exist. Most national constitutions, however, contain a catalogue of economic and social rights. In Colombia, for example, several cases have been brought before the constitutional court on the basis of the right to health in the Colombian Constitution (Toebes 1999, pp. 225-226):

· In one of these cases the plaintiff, who suffered from AIDS and was in a precarious economic state, challenged the refusal of a hospital to provide him with medical services. He claimed that this refusal violated the right to health in Article 13 of the Colombian Constitution. The Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that due to its limited resources, the State is not required to provide free health care to everyone. It stated that nevertheless, the State is on the basis of Article 13 required to provide special protection when the lack of economic resources ‘prevents a person from decreasing the suffering, discrimination, and social risk involved in being afflicted by a terminal, transmissible, and incurable illness’. It ruled that the hospital was to provide the patient with the necessary services (Revista Mensual 1992, pp. 1008-1009). Clearly, the right to health in the Colombian Constitution was considered to be violated.

Implications for non-State actors

In principle, human rights law consists of legal obligations that fall upon the State. The present paper has focused on the human rights obligations that States have with respect to the rights to food and health. The question arises, whether other actors, such as individuals, the UN and multinational corporations can also have legal obligations with respect to the rights to health and food.

It is clear that individuals have duties under international law. For example, international criminal responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law has been clearly established by the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals and recently, by the ad-hoc tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And within the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the so-called third-party applicability of certain civil and political rights has been recognized. Whether individuals have duties with respect to economic, social and cultural rights, however, is a matter that scholars and courts have not yet resolved but which may further evolve in the future. A possible practical implication of this development could be that individuals are held accountable for infringing upon someone’s health or food status, e.g., by destroying someone’s land.

Whether the UN itself can be held accountable for human rights violations is a question that has not been resolved either. For example, given the negative effects of structural adjustment programs on social expenditure, it has been argued that these programs violate (economic and social) human rights (ACC/SCN, 1993, p. 49). Although the World Bank and the IMF are not a party to human rights conventions, it has been maintained that these bodies are, as a UN organization and on the basis of customary international law and general principles of law, at least bound by the most fundamental human rights. In practice this could imply that on the basis of the right to food, the World Bank is to make sure that people are not deprived from their possibilities to grow their crops due to the construction of a dam.

Finally, the question arises whether multinationals can have human rights responsibilities, given their increasing power on a world-wide scale. It can be argued that similar to the World Bank and the IMF, multinationals have limited obligations with respect to some human rights. This could imply that on the basis of the right to food, multinationals should not dump waste in rivers that poisons the crops that are grown alongside this river.

Implications for UN food specialists

UN agencies have an important role to play in poverty alleviation. They may provide development aid and assistance to governments to set up programs for the improvement of people’s health and nutritional status. The UN, as a funding agency, humanitarian aid organization or political actor, has its own set of international obligations in order to assist States to ensure the realization of the human right to food and nutrition. It should always be taken into account, however, that under international human rights law, States have their own responsibility in the field of health, nutrition, and other social areas. So in addition to its own obligation, the UN should seek to hold States accountable for non-compliance with their specific human rights obligations.

As mentioned in the introduction, nutrition experts can analyze specific governmental actions that serve to respect, protect or fulfil the rights to health and food - or at actions that fail to do so. They can seek to address governmental human rights violations in the field of nutrition and health. Furthermore, they can contribute to a clarification of the human right to adequate food.

References

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Appendix A - Human Rights Matrices

Matrix: Tripartite typology of State obligations with regard to the right to health
Brigit CA Toebes

------Health Care ------ // ------ Underlying Preconditions for Health ------


Health Care

Family Planning and Pre- and Postnatal Care

Water and Sanitation

Environmental and Industrial Health

Physical Integrity

Respect

1) respect for equal access to health care including preventive services

2) no interference with the provision of health care

3) no interference with the provision of health care related information

4) respect for equal access to family planning services and pre- and postnatal care

5) no interference with the provision of such services by others

6) no interference with the provision of information on such services

7) respect for equal access to water and sanitation

8) no interference with the provision of water and sanitation

9) no interference with the provision of information on water and sanitation

10) abstention from environmental and industrial policies detrimental to health

11) no interference with environmental and industrial health-related information

12) abstention from harmful traditional practices*

13) no interference with information about harmful effects of such practices

Protect

14) adoption of legislation and other measures in order to assure adequate access to health care provided by third parties

15) adoption of legislation and other measures in order assure that adequate information on health care is provided by third parties

16) adoption of legislation and other measures in order to assure adequate access to family planning and pre- and postnatal care provided by third parties

17) assurance of adequate provision of information on such services by third parties

18) adoption of legislation and other measures in order to assure adequate access to water and sanitation provided by third parties

19) assurance of adequate provision of information on such services by third parties

20) adoption of legislation and other measures for protection against environmental and industrial health infringements by third parties, particularly in the field of environmental health

21) assurance of adequate dissemination of information of environmental health risks by third parties

22) adoption of legislation and other measures for protection against harmful traditional practices

23) assurance of adequate provision of information on such harmful practices by third parties

Fulfil

24) provision of health care services

25) provision of health care related information

26) provision of family planning services and pre- and post-natal care, and granting the latter services latter free of charge to clients if necessary

27) provision of information on such services

28) provision of water and sanitation

29) provision of information on water and sanitation

30) measures to ensure and promote a healthy environment

31) provision of information about environmental health issues

32) measures to ensure and promote freedom from harmful traditional practices

33) provision of information on such harmful practices

* Harmful traditional practices include practices prejudicial to the health of children and women, such as female circumcision or female genital mutilation; traditional birth practices such as dietary restrictions, preferential treatment for male children such as differential feeding patterns, and also forced feeding, early marriage, adolescent childbearing, teenage pregnancies, and ritual enslavement of girls. Source: Toebes 1999, p 258, pp. 314-315.

HUMAN RIGHTS MATRIX by Urban Jonsson of UNICEF*
STRATEGIES TO ENSURE THAT THE GOVERNMENT (STATE) MEETS THE OBLIGATION IN RELATIONS TO THE RIGHT TO BE BREASTFED


ADVOCACY

CAPACITY BUILDING

SERVICE DELIVERY

RESPECT

Advocacy for a national breastfeeding policy

Curricula for training of medical doctors to include the benefits of breastfeeding


PROTECT

Advocacy for legislation against aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes

Training of health workers

Implementation of the BFHI

FULFIL
(Facilitate and Provide)


Support the establishment of Mother Support Groups in Communities

Provide free pre- and post-natal health care

Provide food rations to lactating mothers

*Since this matrix was created, the State obligations to ‘facilitate’ and ‘provide’ have become recognized as subdivisions of the State obligation to ‘fulfil’. The SCN Secretariat modified this matrix to fit with this terminology.

Human Rights Matrix by Urban Jonsson, UNICEF*
BREASTFEEDING RIGHTS DUTIES AND OBLIGATIONS AT DIFFERENT LEVELS OF SOCIETY


HOUSEHOLD

COMMUNITY

GOVERNMENT

RESPECT

To have an attitude that breastfeeding is best for both girls and boys

To assist in the promotion of breastfeeding

To constantly promote breastfeeding

PROTECT

To avoid buying breastmilk substitutes

To inform people about the importance of Breastfeeding

To protect people against misinformation

FULFIL
(Facilitate and Provide)

To assist in household work during lactation

To assist in reducing the workload of lactating mothers

To provide basic mother and child health care


To ensure that the lactating mother eats well

To provide food to poor households with lactating mothers

To ensure household food security

*Since this matrix was created, the State obligations to ‘facilitate’ and ‘provide’ have become recognized as subdivisions of the State obligation to ‘fulfil’. The SCN Secretariat modified this matrix to fit with this terminology.

Appendix B - The General Comment on the Right to Food

UNHCHR - Committee On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights

Twentieth session - Geneva, 26 April-14 May 1999

Agenda item 7: Substantive Issues Arising In The Implementation Of The International

Covenant On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights: General Comment 12

The right to adequate food (art. 11)

Introduction and basic premises

1. The human right to adequate food is recognized in several instruments under international law. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights deals more comprehensively than any other instrument with this right. Pursuant to article 11.1 of the Covenant, States parties recognize “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”, while pursuant to article 11.2 they recognize that more immediate and urgent steps may be needed to ensure “the fundamental right to freedom from hunger and malnutrition”. The human right to adequate food is of crucial importance for the enjoyment of all rights. It applies to everyone; thus the reference in Article 11.1 to “himself and his family” does not imply any limitation upon the applicability of this right to individuals or to female-headed households.

2. The Committee has accumulated significant information pertaining to the right to adequate food through examination of State parties’ reports over the years since 1979. The Committee has noted that while reporting guidelines are available relating to the right to adequate food, only few States parties have provided information sufficient and precise enough to enable the Committee to determine the prevailing situation in the countries concerned with respect to this right and to identify the obstacles to its realization. This General Comment aims to identify some of the principal issues which the Committee considers to be important in relation to the right to adequate food. Its preparation was triggered by the request of Member States during the 1996 World Food Summit, for a better definition of the rights relating to food in article 11 of the Covenant, and by a special request to the Committee to give particular attention to the Summit Plan of Action in monitoring the implementation of the specific measures provided for in article 11 of the Covenant.

3. In response to these requests, the Committee reviewed the relevant reports and documentation of the Commission on Human Rights and of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities on the right to adequate food as a human right; devoted a day of general discussion to this issue at its seventh session in 1997, taking into consideration the draft international code of conduct on the human right to adequate food prepared by international non-governmental organizations; participated in two expert consultations on the right to adequate food as a human right organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in Geneva in December 1997, and in Rome in November 1998 co-hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and noted their final reports. In April 1999 the Committee participated in a symposium on “The substance and politics of a human rights approach to food and nutrition policies and programmes”, organized by the Administrative Committee on Coordination/Sub-Committee on Nutrition of the United Nations at its twenty-sixth session in Geneva and hosted by OHCHR.

4. The Committee affirms that the right to adequate food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfilment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. It is also inseparable from social justice, requiring the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies, at both the national and international levels, oriented to the eradication of poverty and the fulfilment of all human rights for all.

5. Despite the fact that the international community has frequently reaffirmed the importance of full respect for the right to adequate food, a disturbing gap still exists between the standards set in article 11 of the Covenant and the situation prevailing in many parts of the world. More than 840 million people throughout the world, most of them in developing countries, are chronically hungry; millions of people are suffering from famine as the result of natural disasters, the increasing incidence of civil strife and wars in some regions and the use of food as a political weapon. The Committee observes that while the problems of hunger and malnutrition are often particularly acute in developing countries, malnutrition, under-nutrition and other problems which relate to the right to adequate food and the right to freedom from hunger, also exist in some of the most economically developed countries. Fundamentally, the roots of the problem of hunger and malnutrition are not lack of food but lack of access to available food, inter alia because of poverty, by large segments of the world’s population

Normative content of article 11, paragraphs 1 and 2

6. The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. The right to adequate food shall therefore not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients. The right to adequate food will have to be realized progressively. However, States have a core obligation to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger as provided for in paragraph 2 of article 11, even in times of natural or other disasters.

Adequacy and sustainability of food availability and access

7. The concept of adequacy is particularly significant in relation to the right to food since it serves to underline a number of factors which must be taken into account in determining whether particular foods or diets that are accessible can be considered the most appropriate under given circumstances for the purposes of article 11 of the Covenant. The notion of sustainability is intrinsically linked to the notion of adequate food or food security, implying food being accessible for both present and future generations. The precise meaning of “adequacy” is to a large extent determined by prevailing social, economic, cultural, climatic, ecological and other conditions, while “sustainability” incorporates the notion of long-term availability and accessibility.

8. The Committee considers that the core content of the right to adequate food implies:

The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture;

The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.

9. Dietary needs implies that the diet as a whole contains a mix of nutrients for physical and mental growth, development and maintenance, and physical activity that are in compliance with human physiological needs at all stages throughout the life cycle and according to gender and occupation. Measures may therefore need to be taken to maintain, adapt or strengthen dietary diversity and appropriate consumption and feeding patterns, including breast-feeding, while ensuring that changes in availability and access to food supply as a minimum do not negatively affect dietary composition and intake.

10. Free from adverse substances sets requirements for food safety and for a range of protective measures by both public and private means to prevent contamination of foodstuffs through adulteration and/or through bad environmental hygiene or inappropriate handling at different stages throughout the food chain; care must also be taken to identify and avoid or destroy naturally occurring toxins.

11. Cultural or consumer acceptability implies the need also to take into account, as far as possible, perceived non nutrient-based values attached to food and food consumption and informed consumer concerns regarding the nature of accessible food supplies.

12. Availability refers to the possibilities either for feeding oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources, or for well functioning distribution, processing and market systems that can move food from the site of production to where it is needed in accordance with demand.

13. Accessibility encompasses both economic and physical accessibility:

Economic accessibility implies that personal or household financial costs associated with the acquisition of food for an adequate diet should be at a level such that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised. Economic accessibility applies to any acquisition pattern or entitlement through which people procure their food and is a measure of the extent to which it is satisfactory for the enjoyment of the right to adequate food. Socially vulnerable groups such as landless persons and other particularly impoverished segments of the population may need attention through special programmes.

Physical accessibility implies that adequate food must be accessible to everyone, including physically vulnerable individuals, such as infants and young children, elderly people, the physically disabled, the terminally ill and persons with persistent medical problems, including the mentally ill. Victims of natural disasters, people living in disaster-prone areas and other specially disadvantaged groups may need special attention and sometimes priority consideration with respect to accessibility of food. A particular vulnerability is that of many indigenous population groups whose access to their ancestral lands may be threatened.

Obligations and violations

14. The nature of the legal obligations of States parties are set out in article 2 of the Covenant and has been dealt with in the Committee’s General Comment No. 3 (1990). The principal obligation is to take steps to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to adequate food. This imposes an obligation to move as expeditiously as possible towards that goal. Every State is obliged to ensure for everyone under its jurisdiction access to the minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure their freedom from hunger.

15. The right to adequate food, like any other human right, imposes three types or levels of obligations on States parties: the obligations to respect, to protect and to fulfil. In turn, the obligation to fulfil incorporates both an obligation to facilitate and an obligation to provide.1/ The obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires States parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access. The obligation to protect requires measures by the State to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food. The obligation to fulfil (facilitate) means the State must pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security. Finally, whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters.

16. Some measures at these different levels of obligations of States parties are of a more immediate nature, while other measures are more of a long-term character, to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to food.

17. Violations of the Covenant occur when a State fails to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, the minimum essential level required to be free from hunger. In determining which actions or omissions amount to a violation of the right to food, it is important to distinguish the inability from the unwillingness of a State party to comply. Should a State party argue that resource constraints make it impossible to provide access to food for those who are unable by themselves to secure such access, the State has to demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all the resources at its disposal in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations. This follows from Article 2.1 of the Covenant, which obliges a State party to take the necessary steps to the maximum of its available resources, as previously pointed out by the Committee in its General Comment No. 3, paragraph 10. A State claiming that it is unable to carry out its obligation for reasons beyond its control therefore has the burden of proving that this is the case and that it has unsuccessfully sought to obtain international support to ensure the availability and accessibility of the necessary food.

18. Furthermore, any discrimination in access to food, as well as to means and entitlements for its procurement, on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status with the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the equal enjoyment or exercise of economic, social and cultural rights constitutes a violation of the Covenant.

19. Violations of the right to food can occur through the direct action of States or other entities insufficiently regulated by States. These include: the formal repeal or suspension of legislation necessary for the continued enjoyment of the right to food; denial of access to food to particular individuals or groups, whether the discrimination is based on legislation or is pro-active; the prevention of access to humanitarian food aid in internal conflicts or other emergency situations; adoption of legislation or policies which are manifestly incompatible with pre-existing legal obligations relating to the right to food; and failure to regulate activities of individuals or groups so as to prevent them from violating the right to food of others, or the failure of a State to take into account its international legal obligations regarding the right to food when entering into agreements with other States or with international organizations.

20. While only States are parties to the Covenant and are thus ultimately accountable for compliance with it, all members of society - individuals, families, local communities, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, as well as the private business sector - have responsibilities in the realization of the right to adequate food. The State should provide an environment that facilitates implementation of these responsibilities. The private business sector - national and transnational - should pursue its activities within the framework of a code of conduct conducive to respect of the right to adequate food, agreed upon jointly with the Government and civil society.

Implementation at the national level

21. The most appropriate ways and means of implementing the right to adequate food will inevitably vary significantly from one State party to another. Every State will have a margin of discretion in choosing its own approaches, but the Covenant clearly requires that each State party take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that everyone is free from hunger and as soon as possible can enjoy the right to adequate food. This will require the adoption of a national strategy to ensure food and nutrition security for all, based on human rights principles that define the objectives, and the formulation of policies and corresponding benchmarks. It should also identify the resources available to meet the objectives and the most cost-effective way of using them.

22. The strategy should be based on a systematic identification of policy measures and activities relevant to the situation and context, as derived from the normative content of the right to adequate food and spelled out in relation to the levels and nature of State parties’ obligations referred to in paragraph 15 of the present general comment. This will facilitate coordination between ministries and regional and local authorities and ensure that related policies and administrative decisions are in compliance with the obligations under article 11 of the Covenant.

23. The formulation and implementation of national strategies for the right to food requires full compliance with the principles of accountability, transparency, people’s participation, decentralization, legislative capacity and the independence of the judiciary. Good governance is essential to the realization of all human rights, including the elimination of poverty and ensuring a satisfactory livelihood for all.

24. Appropriate institutional mechanisms should be devised to secure a representative process towards the formulation of a strategy, drawing on all available domestic expertise relevant to food and nutrition. The strategy should set out the responsibilities and time-frame for the implementation of the necessary measures.

25. The strategy should address critical issues and measures in regard to all aspects of the food system, including the production, processing, distribution, marketing and consumption of safe food, as well as parallel measures in the fields of health, education, employment and social security. Care should be taken to ensure the most sustainable management and use of natural and other resources for food at the national, regional, local and household levels.

26. The strategy should give particular attention to the need to prevent discrimination in access to food or resources for food. This should include: guarantees of full and equal access to economic resources, particularly for women, including the right to inheritance and the ownership of land and other property, credit, natural resources and appropriate technology; measures to respect and protect self-employment and work which provides a remuneration ensuring a decent living for wage earners and their families (as stipulated in article 7 (a) (ii) of the Covenant); maintaining registries on rights in land (including forests).

27. As part of their obligations to protect people’s resource base for food, States parties should take appropriate steps to ensure that activities of the private business sector and civil society are in conformity with the right to food.

28. Even where a State faces severe resource constraints, whether caused by a process of economic adjustment, economic recession, climatic conditions or other factors, measures should be undertaken to ensure that the right to adequate food is especially fulfilled for vulnerable population groups and individuals.

Benchmarks and framework legislation

29. In implementing the country-specific strategies referred to above, States should set verifiable benchmarks for subsequent national and international monitoring. In this connection, States should consider the adoption of a framework law as a major instrument in the implementation of the national strategy concerning the right to food. The framework law should include provisions on its purpose; the targets or goals to be achieved and the time-frame to be set for the achievement of those targets; the means by which the purpose could be achieved described in broad terms, in particular the intended collaboration with civil society and the private sector and with international organizations; institutional responsibility for the process; and the national mechanisms for its monitoring, as well as possible recourse procedures. In developing the benchmarks and framework legislation, States parties should actively involve civil society organizations.

30. Appropriate United Nations programmes and agencies should assist, upon request, in drafting the framework legislation and in reviewing the sectoral legislation. FAO, for example, has considerable expertise and accumulated knowledge concerning legislation in the field of food and agriculture. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has equivalent expertise concerning legislation with regard to the right to adequate food for infants and young children through maternal and child protection including legislation to enable breastfeeding, and with regard to the regulation of marketing of breast milk substitutes.

Monitoring

31. States parties shall develop and maintain mechanisms to monitor progress towards the realization of the right to adequate food for all, to identify the factors and difficulties affecting the degree of implementation of their obligations, and to facilitate the adoption of corrective legislation and administrative measures, including measures to implement their obligations under articles 2.1 and 23 of the Covenant.

Remedies and accountability

32. Any person or group who is a victim of a violation of the right to adequate food should have access to effective judicial or other appropriate remedies at both national and international levels. All victims of such violations are entitled to adequate reparation, which may take the form of restitution, compensation, satisfaction or guarantees of non-repetition. National Ombudsmen and human rights commissions should address violations of the right to food.

33. The incorporation in the domestic legal order of international instruments recognizing the right to food, or recognition of their applicability, can significantly enhance the scope and effectiveness of remedial measures and should be encouraged in all cases. Courts would then be empowered to adjudicate violations of the core content of the right to food by direct reference to obligations under the Covenant.

34. Judges and other members of the legal profession are invited to pay greater attention to violations of the right to food in the exercise of their functions.

35. States parties should respect and protect the work of human rights advocates and other members of civil society who assist vulnerable groups in the realization of their right to adequate food.

International obligations

States parties

36. In the spirit of article 56 of the Charter of the United Nations, the specific provisions contained in articles 11, 2.1, and 23 of the Covenant and the Rome Declaration of the World Food Summit, States parties should recognize the essential role of international cooperation and comply with their commitment to take joint and separate action to achieve the full realization of the right to adequate food. In implementing this commitment, States parties should take steps to respect the enjoyment of the right to food in other countries, to protect that right, to facilitate access to food and to provide the necessary aid when required. States parties should, in international agreements whenever relevant, ensure that the right to adequate food is given due attention and consider the development of further international legal instruments to that end.

37. States parties should refrain at all times from food embargoes or similar measures which endanger conditions for food production and access to food in other countries. Food should never be used as an instrument of political and economic pressure. In this regard, the Committee recalls its position, stated in its General Comment No. 8, on the relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights.

States and international organizations

38. States have a joint and individual responsibility, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, to cooperate in providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in times of emergency, including assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons. Each State should contribute to this task in accordance with its ability. The role of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and increasingly that of UNICEF and FAO is of particular importance in this respect and should be strengthened. Priority in food aid should be given to the most vulnerable populations.

39. Food aid should, as far as possible, be provided in ways which do not adversely affect local producers and local markets, and should be organized in ways that facilitate the return to food self-reliance of the beneficiaries. Such aid should be based on the needs of the intended beneficiaries. Products included in international food trade or aid programmes must be safe and culturally acceptable to the recipient population.

The United Nations and other international organizations

40. The role of the United Nations agencies, including through the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) at the country level, in promoting the realization of the right to food is of special importance. Coordinated efforts for the realization of the right to food should be maintained to enhance coherence and interaction among all the actors concerned, including the various components of civil society. The food organizations, FAO, WFP and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF, the World Bank and the regional development banks, should cooperate more effectively, building on their respective expertise, on the implementation of the right to food at the national level, with due respect to their individual mandates.

41. The international financial institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, should pay greater attention to the protection of the right to food in their lending policies and credit agreements and in international measures to deal with the debt crisis. Care should be taken, in line with the Committee’s General Comment No. 2, paragraph 9, in any structural adjustment programme to ensure that the right to food is protected.

Acronyms

CEDAW

Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

CERD

Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

CESCR

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

CHR

Commission on Human Rights

CRC

Convention on the Rights of the Child

HRC

Human Rights Committee

IBHR

International Bill of Human Rights

ICCPR

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

ICESCR

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

UNHCHR

United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights

UNHRC

United Nations Human Rights Committee

Back cover

This 3rd Abraham Horwitz Lecture was given at the ACC/SCN 26th Session Symposium with took place in Geneva, Switzerland
10-15 April 1999

The full symposium report:

Adequate Food: A Human Right

is published in the SCN News No. 18, July 1999 and is available from the ACC/SCN Secretariat in Geneva.

Information on ACC/SCN Nutrition Policy papers, as well as additional copies of papers, can be obtained from the ACC/SCN Secretariat.

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