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

5.1 What difference does a rights-based approach make?

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

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

A human rights framework means:

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

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

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

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

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

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