Food Security: A Human Right

Corporate Accountability Project | Mon, Feb 18, 2002

By Martin M. McLaughlin

The need to work on the issue of hunger in the context of human rights was an important area of agreement at the 1996 UN World Food Summit (WFS). The very first paragraph of the Declaration on World Food Security reaffirmed ""the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone toed be free from hunger; and the penultimate objective of the Summit's Rome Plan of Action is ""To clarify the content of the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger..."" Among other things, Governments pledged to ""Invite the UN High Commissioner for Human better define the rights related to food in Article 11 of the (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) and to propose ways to implement and realize these rights as a means of achieving the commitments and objectives of the World Food Summit...""The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, said at a December 1, 1997, consultation in Geneva on the Right to Adequate Food as a Human Right that ""The right to food is recognized in international law,"" but also noted that ""examining the right to adequate food cannot be undertaken without considering the broader international legal framework within which it has been proclaimed."" In particular, the implementation of specific measures included in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights needs to be monitored. The basic text, of course, remains Article 25 of the 1948 Declaration, which includes ""the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of (one's) self and (one's) family, including food...""The chairman of FAO's Food Security Committee, Ambassador Pedro Medrano of Chile, has noted the high level of support for the right to food and for making it the central demand of the Food for All Campaign. In a paper prepared for the same UN consultation in Geneva, the FAO focused not on deliberate policies of food deprivation, but rather on situations in which ""man-made or natural disasters,"" low socio-economic development,"" or poverty resulted in restricted access to food by the poor.At the separate NGO Forum which took place in Rome at the same time as the Summit, agreement was quickly reached for NGOs to support the right to food; and several nongovernmental and religious groups, as well as the UN agencies, are engaged in campaigns on that subject. Among other things, these campaigns encourage efforts to build on the level of agreement already achieved about promising proposals such as a Code of Conduct on the Right to Food and/or the negotiation of a Convention on Sustainable Food Security. Some of these activities were noted by the UN High Commissioner at the Geneva session.The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is December 10, 1998. Many organizations, including those dedicated to food security, are gearing up for campaigns related to elements of that Declaration, which includes, in Article 25, ""the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food..."" CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHINGThe right to food is implicit in the Scriptures and the writings of the early Church Fathers and the medieval Scholastics, and it became explicit and current in the pontificate of Pope John XXIII. In Pacem in Terris (1963) he says, ""we see that every man (sic) has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services."" (#11)In their 1986 pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, Economic Justice for All, the US Bishops wrote: ""The problem of hunger has a special significance for those who read the Scriptures and profess the Christian faith. From the Lord's command to feed the hungry, to the Eucharist we celebrate as the Bread of Life, the fabric of our faith demands that we be creatively engaged in sharing the food that sustains life. There is no more basic human need."" (#282)Archbishop Renato R. Martino, Nuncio and Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations, October 31, 1997, told the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly that the WFS statement ""serves as a beacon for the conscience of the international community cutting through a fog of ineffective policies and, at times, a lack of will, in order to highlight one of the most concrete and daily problems of existence for the poor and marginalized in the world -- the problem of hunger.""U.S. POSITIONThe United States agreed to the Summit Declaration and Plan of Action,"" but its delegation took pains to spell out its understanding of the commitment. They submitted an ""interpretative statement for the record,"" which says: ""The United States believes that the attainment of any 'right to food' or 'fundamental right to be free from hunger' is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively that does not give rise to any international obligations..."" It places this ""aspiration"" squarely within the purview of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Elsewhere the delegation speaks of ""a right inherent in the individual that is an integral part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.""CONCLUSIONFew would argue against a moral right to food; the practical question is whether it is, or needs to be, a legal right. If, as we all agree, there is a right to life, then surely, as Pope John XXIII asserted, there is a commensurate right to those things that sustain life, the most basic of which is food. The danger in the current policy context is that economic efficiency will be allowed to displace moral value at the forefront of the debate. In this context, the most fundamental value is that every human being has the right to a safe, adequate, and nutritious diet.ACTIONFor the remainder of this year the US Government's Inter-Agency Working Group on Food Security will be developing its National Food Plan to fulfill its WFS commitment and advance food security. Several groups of NGOs, including the Washington working group, in which the Center of Concern participates, will be critiquing the government's document and working to produce their own, which will probably include a proposed Convention on Food Security and/or a Code of Conduct on the right to food. Currently, neither the Clinton Administration's FY 1999 budget proposal nor draft legislation for the second session of the 105th Congress includes provisions related to the National Food Plan. We will try to keep our readers posted on these developments as they occur or can be predicted.