Advancing the Right to Food: A Model to Emulate?

On 25 October, UN Special Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter presented to the UN General Assembly his report on the right to food. In a very systematic way he demonstrated the progress made in the ten years since the adoption by member states of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) of the Right to Food Guidelines (November 2004).

His findings and his recommendations on further steps can serve as a model for the advancement of other second and third generation human rights that concern public goods, like water, decent jobs, healthcare and a clean environment. In fact, the elements that enabled progress on the right to food – which is itself part of the Millennium Development Goals – could also be used for advancing the next set of global goals or SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) that are being negotiated for the post-2015 period. Such elements include:

Intergovernmental agreements, action plans and monitoring mechanisms

At the global level, conventions and other major agreements, action plans and monitoring mechanisms provide the umbrella and the universal framework under which specific action is taken by member states. In the case of the right to food, this includes the human rights conventions, the FAO guidelines, Food Summit decisions, the intergovernmental Committee on World Food Security and a supportive Comprehensive Framework for Action by UN system entities. In the case of the post-2015 development framework, with SDGs conceived as human rights, the global framework could again include the Human Rights Conventions, the Millennium Declaration, the Outcome of the Rio+20 Conference and the eventual agreement on the SDGs, with the newly-established High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development as the key intergovernmental body.

Rights enshrined in national constitutions or other legislation , with framework laws and national strategies for implementation

Constitutions like those of Kenya and South Africa now impose on the state a duty to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to food. More than 24 states have such provisions in their constitutions, while several other states have elevated the right to food to a principal state policy, directly or through the right to a dignified life. This creates legal entitlement where otherwise would be only a soft, charitable obligation, and allows for monitoring and accountability, unlike many voluntary initiatives, which are dominated by entrenched elites. Domestic courts and other monitoring mechanisms, like Ombudsmen and human rights commissions, are empowered to impose compliance with state obligations, and those deprived of the rights can ask for redress. Once can see this extended from food to include access to clean water and modern energy services – the trio occasionally referred to as “the nexus” – as well as other goals/rights.

Whole of government approach, realignment of policies and resource allocation to enable the realization of rights

As for the right to food, governments need first to enable people to make provisions for any specific right or rights by themselves, and to protect them when they try to do so by fending off entrenched interests. If individuals or groups are unable, initially at least, to provide for themselves, then it is the obligation of the state to make the necessary arrangements. Similarly, when states are unable to provide for their citizens, the international community has to step in with adequate support, at least temporarily. All branches of government need to do their part, that is the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. For the executive leadership should come from the highest level. A whole-of government approach involving all relevant ministries, agencies and other stakeholders should be taken both for planning and implementation, aligning policies and building on synergies. Framework laws and social protection schemes should be passed by the legislative allocating resources, setting targets and ensuring accountability.

Pro-active adjudication of rights by courts and other compliance mechanisms

National and regional courts and commissions should proactively adjudicate claims about the insufficient discharge by the state of its obligation to ensure the enjoyment of rights by its citizens. In so doing they can also precipitate a re-examination of structural elements that often underlie the non-fulfilment of rights, such as inequitable access to resources, inadequate taxation and other discriminatory or poorly-conceived systems in place. Of course, to use the courts and related mechanisms citizens have to be aware of their rights and of the courts’ existence, have legal recourse without excessive formalities or costs, and trust in the transparency and impartiality of the system. Eventual legal decisions can confirm the enjoyment of rights and expand the remit of relevant implementation programmes to include other rightful beneficiaries.

Active participation of civil society at all levels

Civil society and social movements, at local, national and cross-border levels can provide the driving force for enshrining the rights into law, national and local strategy elaboration, and adequate resource allocation. Once there is a plan in place, they are crucial for monitoring or helping with implementation, and enabling recourse to justice by the less advantaged. Holding “social audits”, with officials reporting to village assemblies, and tracking implementation on the internet, are some of the means that can be used. Balancing private with communal interests, with preponderance given to the enjoyment of the full set of rights by individuals and groups, is also important for the smooth functioning of the society and the economy, as well as the environment that is covered by the rights.

In conclusion, the right to food, as advanced in recent years, offers a model for the advancement of an emerging set of sustainable development goals, which can be approached in a anthropocentric way as a set of rights. Enshrined in constitutions and legal instruments, implemented through coordinated national strategies and pro-actively defended in courts, with the engagement of all stakeholders, these rights would collectively guarantee resilience and sustainability for individuals, communities and the world at large. Of course, a precondition would be to get the political and popular will and the resources required to set this in motion, and to have a manageably small and clear set of goals to start with.

Further Reading

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