The Human Right to Food

Anonyme, Sábado, Febrero 27, 2010 - 13:55

Michael Bergstreser and Gerd Pohl

"In June 2009 the number of starving persons surpassed a billion for the first time. This is a political failure of the world food system since all people could have adequate food. The human right to food is massively violated. To fight hunger, the question about human rights challenges, especially the right to food, should be raised..."

By Michael Bergstreser and Gerd Pohl
[This chapter is translated from the German on the Internet,

{To order a copy of "Menschenrecht auf Nahrung," October 2009, vsa Verlag, 12.80 Eur, click on link to]

[ The modern world food system is socially unjust. Over a billion people suffer under chronic hunger. The human right to food is violated. Millions of farm workers and food workers are among the starving. The world food system destroys the ecology on which it depends.
The causes of this development are varied: wars, natural disasters and population growth. Because of the financial crisis, climate change and neoliberal political strategies, the number of hungry persons has increased dramatically. The inflation of prices for food, the bio-fuel boom and speculation on raw materials intensify the situation. The production of food for the world population is dominated today by agricultural- and food corporations. They fight for market shares, profits and patents. The UN millennium goal of cutting in half the number of starving persons is moved far away.

This book clarifies the current discussion and contributes to solidarity actions.

With articles by Jean Ziegler, Elmar Altvater, Herbert Schui, Jorg Goldberg, Peter Wald (Weed), Pia Eberhardt (Attac), Michael Windpuhr (Bread for the World), World Hunger Relief and Effa. ]

A rich man and a poor man
stood and looked at each other.
Pale as death, the poor one said
You wouldn't be rich
if I wasn't poor.
 Bertold Brecht

In June 2009, the number of starving persons surpassed a billion for the first time. This is a political failure of the world food system since adequate food could be made available for all people. The human right to food is massively violated. To fight hunger, the question about human rights challenges, especially the right to food, should be raised.

The development of human rights is closely connected politically with liberation from absolutism in Europe and the American Declaration of Independence. People are born free with equal rights. This was proclaimed in the 1791 Declaration of Human Rights in France. Human rights are subjective rights to which every person is equally entitled. Enlightenment, humanization and the natural law belong to the history of ideas. Human rights are universal. No one may be preferred or suffer discrimination on account of race, skin color, gender, origin etc. Human rights are indivisible. Freedom rights can only be realized when the right to food is realized and vice versa.

Human rights were gradually integrated in the constitutions and international legal order in a process over more than 200 years. The focus was on civil-political freedom rights. Since the middle of the 20th century, economic, social and cultural human rights have been anchored in the national and international legal system. This process was and is the subject of passionate political, economic, legal and ideological controversies. Today nearly all states are bound in the comprehensive code of social, economic and cultural human rights and in international commercial law (Paesch 2003).

From the view of Christian development assistance, a positive and also ambiguous relation to human rights is emphasized. "Many developments in the area of human rights that occurred in the 20th century - including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - were largely influenced or inspired by Christians (Diakonical Work 2008). Human rights largely agree with Biblical values but the relation is by no means unequivocal. Human rights work - on the background of religious diversity and the secular world - is an important element of Christian justice work. From a Christian perspective, the inequality of the world grows and makes solidarity action urgently necessary given continuing poverty and human rights violations. A law-based human rights approach could contribute to more political responsibility. "Political power is only used legitimately when exercised in agreement with the international human rights standard and for protection of human dignity... All actors who contribute to a violation or neglect of rights must be called to account" (Diakonical Work 2008).


The foundation of the human right to food is Article 25 of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." The international pact on civil and political rights and the international pact on economic, social and cultural human rights were passed in 1966 by the UN General Assembly. The human right to food is also contained in Article 11 of the international pact on economic, social and cultural human rights.

Interpretation and monitoring of the social pact occurs through the United Nations that laid down three core elements of the right to food in its general remarks of 1999. Firstly, there is control over food, a sufficient measure of nutrient-rich foods. Secondly, there is accessibility of food for everyone free from discrimination, especially for groups that are afflicted by food insecurity (the landless, small farmers and urban poor). Spending for food may not reduce household incomes so that other vital goods become unaffordable. Thirdly, the appropriateness and quality of food is part of the right to food. The cultural appropriateness of food and minimum qualitative standards for sufficient and varied food ensure nutritional value and nutrients according to the needs of different groups of persons. Access to water is more than only a human need that can be regulated by the market. The UN understands water as a human right derived from the right to food and the right to health.

The 158 states that ratified the pact are obliged to respect, protect and guarantee the agreed human rights. This responsibility refers to people in particular countries and is joined with extra-territorial human rights obligations. The human right to food is violated when the state, international organizations or the international community of states do not meet its obligations to ensure human rights. The right to food was and is often violated in the tension between economic interests and human rights obligations (Paesch 2008). The Federal Republic of Germany ratified this social pact in 1973 and is committed to realizing the human right to food. German development assistance, trade- and economic policy and the international plane have effects on the right to food in other countries (Hausmann 2007).

The signatory states are obliged to present a report on the conversion of human rights every five years. This report will be examined by the UN committee for economic, social and cultural rights that can also make recommendations. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can issue parallel reports for the committee. The Evangelical Development Service, Bread for the World and FIAN presented reports for the first time in 2001.

Another organization of the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), also has an important function. The FAO advises governments and guides government negotiations on voluntary guidelines for the right to food. This was passed unanimously by 187 member states in the FAO in 2004. For Jean Ziegler, the former special UN ambassador for the right to food, the many organizations of the UN act in "latent schizophrenia." The World Health Organization fights epidemics. The FAO, the World hunger program and UNICEF try to bring half-starved persons back to life... But at the same time the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization with their ultra-liberal privatization- and deregulation policy hostile to the state and community devastate the weak structures of the same countries of the third world (Ziegler 2002).

The history of many foods and stimulants, as for example coffee, cocoa, tea, rice and sugar, is a shameful chapter of colonial history. Europe's wealth fundamentally arose through the exploitation of mineral resources, land robbery, the slave trade and oppression. Colonialism contributed to the massive poverty and hunger. The colonial inheritance is also one of the roots of hunger. Many former colonial states have not succeeded in developing government policy that can combat and remove hunger. The causes are varied. On one side, dictatorships, civil wars and corruption mark their conditions. On the other hand, post-colonial dependent relationships play a role. Former colonial powers, transnational corporations and new economic empires have such structures. These include subsidized agricultural exports of industrial countries and simultaneous access-restrictions for their markets, unfair trade conditions, high license fees etc. Much of the profits from mineral resources, raw materials and foodstuffs flow into the headquarters of transnational corporations. The debt service of the third world, especially of the poorest countries, is directly connected with hunger and chronic malnutrition. The ACP-states, 77 countries including nearly all former colonies of European states, reached a trade agreement with the EU in 1975. This trade agreement should be replaced by new partnership agreements, which are criticized by human rights organizations because they strengthen economic dependencies and exploitation. Fair trading conditions require that the new partnership agreements of the EU include the right to food.


In the globalization process, a power shift occurs from the policy of individual nation states to transnational corporations. Globalization profits and wealth concentrate on the side of highly industrialized countries and transnational corporations while hunger, poverty, malnutrition, sickness, illiteracy etc. predominate in the third world. A grave violation of human rights accompanies globalization. Examples of the violation of the human right to food have often been documented (FIAN 2003, FIAN 2005):

• Fish stocks are fished dry by industrial fishing fleets and fishers are driven into poverty
• Subsidized export of food from Europe destroys the foundation of life of farmers in the third world (milk powder, chicken etc).
• Mega-projects like dams lead to expulsion and loss of country-folk's economic foundation
• Farmers are displaced by the expansion of export plantations
• Working conditions are marked by starvation wages, catastrophic working conditions and persecution of union activists
• Transnational corporations buy up access to water
• Land for breeding shrimp is leased to transnational corporations after the expropriation of fishers and farmers.

The gulf between human rights pacts and their interpretation on one side and neoliberal trade policy pressing for further market opening on the other side has deepened. The criticism of a policy inconsistent with human rights is also substantiated by current empirical studies. Case studies on the effects of European agricultural and trade policy as in the example of exports of tomatoes and chicken to Ghana show that human rights obligations were broken both by the respective governments and by the member states of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU (Paesch 2008). The UN special ambassador for the right to food, Oliver de Schutter, also clearly criticizes the negative role of export subsidies and trade liberalization in the development of hunger.

From the view of neoliberalism, freedom- and property rights are regarded as civil human rights. They legitimate globalization, the claims of world trade- and financial institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), IMF and the World Bank to market freedom and growth. Hunger and poverty, exploitation and ruinous exploitation of nature are taken in the bargain by them as "side-effects." Economic rights and social human rights are regarded from the neoliberal view as two separated legal realms. Neoliberal property rights have precedence over social human rights. "This concept is sharply criticized as functionalization of human rights for the goal of free trade... Human rights formulate the fundamental social perspectives and goals to which property- and freedom rights should be subject and not vice versa... Human rights should have precedence in a conflict between commercial law and social human rights" (Paesch 2003).


On one hand, measures for combating hunger legitimated by the human right to food have greater chances. An increasing codification of human rights is also manifest in international agreements. Monitoring boards on the UN plane have been established. On the other hand, considerable discrepancies exist between the norms of the human right to food and the political reality. The breach of trade agreements can have legal consequences while the negative effects of trade agreements on human rights are unavenged (Paesch 2003). This is particularly true for violations of human rights by transnational corporations. Voluntary pacts and declarations of intent by corporations often run into empty space without sanctions. Effective mechanisms that could prevent violations of human rights are lacking. Therefore the immediate passage and implementation of UN norms for private businesses and FAO guidelines are on the agenda. The UN committee for economic, social and cultural rights must also be strengthened financially and politically. Extending human rights obligations to transnational corporations and international trade- and financial institutions is vital. More effective grievance-, complaint- and sanction-possibilities could counter violations of human rights.


The world food system is a socially unjust system in which more than a billion people must go hungry. Millions of farmers cannot feed themselves and their families with starvation wages. The vast majority of farmers all over the world live in countries that continue to be impoverished through liberalized trade. Conditions for children, seniors and women whose labor is exploited under inhuman conditions are especially catastrophic. Although human rights are formally in effect today through numerous international agreements, farmers must fight against massive violations of these rights.

What is crucial on one side is a new model of food. Food sovereignty is a self-determined and sustainable model of production, distribution and consumption of food in which cultural diversity is respected. On the other side, unions pursue a strategy of integrated rights. The right to healthy and secure food should be joined with the rights of farmers. To use the right to food, people need wages ensuring their existence, health protection and the right to organize. This strategy of integrated rights goes beyond food security and the availability of food. It includes the following rights (IUL 2002):

• The right to adequate, substantial and secure food,
• The right to food security and food sovereignty,
• The right to association and the right to collective bargaining,
• The right to secure work and a living environment,
• The right to protection of livelihood.

However the implementation of this strategy does not occur in a self-dynamic. Human rights, especially the right to food, should be strengthened as a legal instrument in the struggle against the global hunger crisis. Instead of easy lobbyism, strong political pressure must be applied on governments, transnational corporations, international trade- and financial-institutions and UN organizations.


Combating world hunger is not only a human rights challenge. The gulf between poverty and wealth in the world has increased. Worldwide there are 1000 billionaires and 800,000 millionaires while more than a billion people suffer under extreme poverty and must live from less than one US dollar daily. From a social-ethical perspective, enforcement of need justice is imperative. People need food assistance or income ensuring existence. More social justice requires changing unjust income- and asset-conditions.

The breakdown of finance market capitalism afflicts the poorest and hungry most severely. They pay with malnutrition, sicknesses and death from starvation, not with falling stock prices. While billions were infused to bailout the financial sector, the world food program is beset with financial problems. On account of deficient financial resources, the UN organization had to limit its own relief shipments to the starving. The hunger crisis is an effect of long-term political failure. Additional financial resources to combat hunger could be mobilized when tax havens are closed, capital flight contained and financial transactions taxed.

A political agenda that considers the respective social, economic and ecological conditions of regions is also necessary. The majority of starving are landless farm workers and small farmers. They need land- and educational reforms. The political reform of world trade structures with reduction of massive export subsidies of industrial countries and improved access of agricultural products from the third world to the markets of industrial countries are part of fair trade conditions. Under the conditions of neoliberal globalization, resisting privatization and deregulation is difficult for the third world. Therefore campaigns for social human rights through social movements, international networks, human rights organizations, churches and unions are more necessary than ever. The struggle against hunger and poverty requires international solidarity.

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