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The human right to food is not an unattainable goal; rather, it remains unrealized
by UN Office for Human Rights (OHCHR)
10:19am 4th Jul, 2023
The human right to food is not an unattainable goal; rather, it remains unrealized, by Hilal Elver. (Committee on World Food Security)
"In May 2023, the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) announced that an unprecedented number of 345 million people were battling extreme hunger in 58 countries, in 2022. These people required urgent assistance for food, nutrition, and livelihood in order to survive. This number is the highest recorded since 2017 when the GRFC began reporting such data.
The report uses 3 categories of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC): (3) Crisis, (4) Emergency, (5) Catastrophe/Famine conditions. Phase 5 signifies an extreme lack of food and other basic needs, even after implementing all possible coping strategies.
At this level, starvation, death, destitution, and critical acute malnutrition are evident. In addition to the cases of extreme hunger, over three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. These numbers represent more than mere statistics, they represent human beings who deserve dignity, and a decent life.
Food insecurity has been on the rise since 2014, but the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the ongoing Ukraine war, has disrupted global food supply chains, creating the most severe global food crisis since the Second World War.
Besides these unprecedented issues, extreme weather events related to climate change, such as prolonged and intensified droughts, as well as severe and unpredictable floods, are significantly reducing food production and distribution.
Given the adverse impact of these recent multiple crises, reaching the “Zero Hunger” target of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals No. 2, is clearly not viable until 2030.
Notably, these outcomes are not distributed equally across countries, regions, or social groups. While vertical and horizontal inequalities between countries and individuals are widening, the goal of eliminating hunger and malnutrition within marginalized communities remains daunting.
Social and economic challenges such as poverty, forced displacement and migration, intergenerational inequality, as well as multiple discriminations prevent equal access to available food in many developing countries.
Ironically, most people who suffer from hunger, malnutrition and poverty are concentrated in rural areas, and work in the food and agriculture sector, producing much of the locally consumed foods.
During my mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, I witnessed such inequalities, injustices and human sufferings in various places that were already burdened by the severe impact of climate disasters, political conflicts, skyrocketing food prices, unilateral coercive measures, health hazards of agricultural chemicals, massive displacements due to development projects and extractive industries. Indigenous Peoples and peasants, especially women and children, are unequivocally impacted by such detrimental conditions, more than others.
Our job as Special Rapporteurs is to bring the voice of those voiceless people to the UN platforms and international media, shedding light on both deliberate and unintentional, yet irresponsible, policies.
I also witnessed that the right to food has merely become rhetoric, with nothing more than empty promises. Sadly, even many human rights organizations have not used the right to food and the human rights-based approach as a tool to fight against hunger and malnutrition. This is due to a lack of understanding of the procedural rules of human rights law, as well as insufficient institutional, financial, and political support for implementing the right to food.
Moreover, there is a sense of disappointment about the fact that human rights principles are not strong enough to reverse policies or effectively penalize perpetrators in order to discourage harmful behaviours.
At the same time, the public sector is gradually losing its regulatory power against global corporate interests and international trade rules. Activists are also losing ground in defending human rights, specifically the right to food, food sovereignty, and promoting local food systems against the global establishment. Furthermore, those who try to protect peoples’ land and water rights are often subject to psychological and physical violence by corporate-supported militias.
Women’s rights and gender equality are continuously undermined everywhere. After many years of efforts, the advancement of gender equality in food systems according to a new report of the Malabo Montpellier Panel is “slow and fragile”.
Also, the recent report by the FAO on “The status of women in agri-food systems” estimates that the global gender food security gap has registered an eightfold increase since 2008. The report also highlights that bridging the gender gap in farm productivity would reduce global food insecurity by approximately two percentage points, equivalent to alleviating the number of food-insecure people by 45 million. Additionally, it is estimated that this would contribute around USD 1 trillion to the global GDP.
These trends indicate that current global food systems often exclude the interests of women, Indigenous Peoples, small-scale family farmers and food producers in favour of a few powerful ones. As a result, food security has become highly monopolized and politicized, both at the national and international level, due to the involvement of numerous actors and economic interests.
Undermining the human rights system, specifically the right to food and other relevant rights, presents a major obstacle in eliminating hunger and malnutrition in the context of highly unequal food systems and destabilizes the pursuit of overall human security as well.
Considering the detrimental impact of multiple crises, building a common understanding about achieving food security for all is urgently needed, yet fiercely contested. As we have witnessed during the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, there are two distinct perspectives regarding how to address these current multi-layers, multi-actors, and multi-ideological features of global food governance.
The dominant perspective is production-oriented, a neoliberal market model, primarily relying on global food trade. This viewpoint is promoted by powerful states, the private sector, large-scale producers, and global food trade supporters. This system has proven to be ineffective for a significant number of smallholder farmers, producers, and food systems workers, while big food corporations continue to experience soaring profits.
The second perspective is the human rights-based approach to food security and nutrition. It prioritizes the right to food and nutrition for all, particularly women, children, food workers and peasants' rights, and equal access to resources. This approach supports small-scale farmers and producers, prioritizes self-sufficiency and local markets, and defends agroecology and food sovereignty.
The right to food was initially acknowledged 75 years ago in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Art. 25, along with other economic rights, which referred to “an adequate standard of living.”
Subsequently, the legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976 being signed and ratified by 170 countries, committing them to take measures to optimize available resources in order to gradually achieve the complete realization of the right to adequate food, both at the national and international level.
The right to food was also repeatedly recognized in the major human rights conventions, such as Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on Right of Child, and the Convention on Right to Disable People, as well as a number of national constitutions.
More recently, the two important UN Declarations, the Declaration of Right of Indigenous Peoples (2007), and the Declaration of Peasants (2018) extended the content of the right to food by emphasizing individual human rights to communal rights.
Today, more than 30 countries explicitly and 54 countries implicitly recognized the right to food in their constitution. Latin American countries have emerged as champions in advocating for the right to food.
Nevertheless, after seven decades, there is still a significant gap between law and implementation, and some states continue to ignore and undermine economic, social and cultural rights, particularly the right to food.
It is important to recognize that, despite the successful recognition and implementation of civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights are neglected, ignored and undermined.
Challenges of implementing a human rights approach
Since its inception, the right to food has often faced criticism due to its indefinable, undeliverable, and non-justiciable nature. On the other hand, the right to food is undeniably a fundamental human right closely connected to the ‘right to life’.
Ethics philosopher Henry Shue argues that basic rights, such as the right to food, are “an essential and necessary condition to the enjoyment of all other rights”. Similarly, Amartya Sen argues that “there is strong evidence that economic and political freedoms help to reinforce one another, rather than being hostile to one another”.
One of the reasons for the weak political will to implement the right to food stems from the conflict between the ethics of capitalism, the logic of the market, and the adherence to the realm of economic and social rights.
There is a prevailing perception that the right to food is a matter of charity, humanitarianism, or moral responsibility, rather than a legal entitlement that states are duty-bound to uphold for all individuals.
There is a fundamental distinction between these two perspectives. Accordingly, it is crucial for states to ensure that adequate institutions and avenues exist to enable rights holders to hold them accountable for violations of their rights and secure remedial relief for themselves.
It is widely agreed that the quality of institutions has a significant impact not only on the implementation of the right to food, but also on the state’s economy and the level of food security enjoyed by its population.
Moreover, institutions cannot be effective without corresponding mechanisms for monitoring and accountability at both domestic and international levels.
In 2013, the long-awaited Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR) entered into force, bringing complaints to the international level from those who experience violations of their economic, social and cultural rights.
Unfortunately, state parties are still reluctant to implement the international complaint mechanism, and thus, the protocol remains mostly dormant.
Another challenge is despite the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, which emphasize breaking the silos among various goals, fragmentation of global governance in UN institutions still exists.
Institutional fragmentation and silos within and between the Rome-based institutions and Geneva-based human rights organizations and their mechanisms have further weakened efforts to mainstream human rights into the food policy agenda.
In recent years, human rights have been under attack due to emerging nationalism, populism and predatory global capitalism. Unfortunately, world powers are retreating in their historical commitment to human rights.
Consequently, United Nations institutions are experiencing extreme financial shortfalls, especially the Human Rights Council and regional human rights mechanisms, such as the Inter-American human rights system.
The right to food and other economic rights are mostly violated by the private sector. However, corporations are reluctant to be held accountable for their human rights violations, except for “voluntary corporate social responsibility”.
Such a weak regulation simply reinforces the philosophy of the global food industry that enables corporations profiteering from the do-good motto: “feeding the world”, while simultaneously undermining any unintended – or even in some cases intended – consequences of the violation of human rights.
Unfortunately, developed countries that are benefiting from current free market-oriented global food systems, blocked the negotiations to establish legally binding agreements against human rights violations by the private sector.
This attitude intensifies inequality and poverty, and undermines self-sufficiency, sustainability, agroecology and many other policies that are part and parcel of a human rights-based approach.
Implementing the human rights-based approach would be an effective and appropriate policy tool for building democratic, just and equitable food governance that responds to current social and economic inequalities.
This implies the following important policy changes that parliamentarians have the power to develop:
Strong political commitment and allocation of public resources;
Democratic institutional structure to reach meaningful participation in decision making processes, strong partnerships, and dialogues by including marginalized groups;
Emphasis on the most vulnerable communities, individuals, including women, youth and Indigenous Peoples who are the most impacted by immediate crises, yet most capable to solve it;
Dedicated attention to marginalized food systems actors, for sharing information, establishing evidence-based analysis, enabling access to technology and education.
Building effective mechanisms to increase monitoring and accountability against right to food violations.
Eliminating hunger and malnutrition and realizing the right to food are deeply interconnected. Achieving this goal is a substantial undertaking, given the legal, political, economic and environmental conditions of the current world order.
However, with political will, solidarity and compassion at every level, the transformation of aspirations into action, is achievable. States must implement those human rights instruments which ensure that all players, not only the powerful ones, are included in the decision-making processes. Those who disproportionately suffer from hunger must be represented and afforded the opportunity to advocate for their rights.
It is important to bear in mind that the human right to food is not an unattainable goal; rather, it remains unrealized. Resolving issues of hunger and malnutrition is not only a commitment to achieving fundamental human rights, but also a means to address the current crisis of inequality and promote justice and political stability in all aspects of the human and natural world.
Radical transformation of food governance is crucial if we aim to enhance the resilience of our food systems, particularly in the face of the challenges of our time.
Failure to address inefficiencies, inequities and injustices in global food policies, especially in the midst of escalating climate change, growing social unrest and political instability is unconscionable and unacceptable".
* Hilal Elver delivered this speech at the Second Global Parliamentary Summit against Hunger and Malnutrition in Chile - June 2023. Hilal is a member of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) for the United Nations Committee on World Food Security and a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
June 2023
53rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Farida Shaheed
Education is a human right - Joint Statement on children’s education
I have the honour to deliver this statement on behalf of the Dominican Republic, Luxembourg, and a group of 64 other countries.
Everyone has the right to education: it is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which we commemorate the 75th anniversary, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other core human rights instruments.
Regrettably, worldwide, 244 million children and young persons are not getting an education for social, economic and cultural reasons.
The cost of education remains a significant barrier, disproportionately affecting children and adolescents from low-income families, girls, children with disabilities and school age persons in vulnerable situations. Conflicts and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the global education crisis.
Furthermore, 4 out of 10 children and young persons do not complete secondary school and nearly half of all children of the world are not enrolled in pre-primary education. A vast majority of countries have not achieved gender parity in secondary education.
Education is a human right and plays a crucial role in the fight against inequality and for the consolidation of sustainable development.
Today, we call on all Member States to guarantee access to free, quality, and inclusive education for all children from pre-school through secondary school, and ensure its adequate funding.
We support efforts to strengthen the right to education, including the explicit right to full free secondary and at least one year of free pre-primary education.
* Joint Statement:
* Securing the right to education: advances and critical challenges - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Farida Shaheed
In her first report to the Human Rights Council, 25 years after the establishment of the mandate on the right to education, the Special Rapporteur reviews achievements, particularly on how the right to education is understood today and the obligations it entails, as well as contemporary and emerging issues that need to be considered to ensure the right to education for all, today and in the future.
June 2023
Job guarantee programmes – whereby the government guarantees a job to anyone willing and able to work – can protect workers from the biggest global employment challenges of our time, according to a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter.
“With miserable working conditions and low pay affecting the majority of the world’s workers, and disruptions and job losses in labour markets we can expect to see from the rise of AI, it is clear that the world of work needs an urgent rethink,” De Schutter said ahead of his presentation of his report to the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council.
“It is no longer enough for governments to merely try to create the right conditions for job growth,” the UN expert said. “Instead, they should guarantee a secure and socially useful job at a living wage for anyone who wants one. Properly understood, this is what the right to work is truly about.”
The International Labour Organisation puts the global jobs gap at 473 million people: 205 million unemployed and 268 million who would like to work but are not actively looking due to circumstances beyond their control such as a lack of childcare. Around two billion people, 60% of the world’s workforce, work in the informal economy, often in extremely low-paid, insecure jobs with little access to employment rights.
“For too long exploitative employers have had the upper hand, knowing workers will choose poorly-paid and insecure work over destitution,” the Special Rapporteur said. “A job guarantee would turn the tables, with workers being able to fall back on government jobs that offer decent conditions and wages.”
While job guarantee programmes in the past have tended to create jobs in infrastructure projects such as building roads or dams, De Schutter’s report highlights the alarming workforce gaps in the care, education and health sectors they could fill.
“The global employment paradox is that while there are too few decent jobs, there is certainly no shortage of work to be done,” De Schutter said. “Spurred largely by our obsession with economic growth at all costs, jobs in the care, education and health sectors are woefully undersupplied by the market despite being of immense value to society – no doubt because they don’t churn out obscene profits.”
“A job guarantee could fill the roles we so desperately need, but that the private sector has no financial incentive to provide,” the expert said.
“A job guarantee scheme should be strictly voluntary and sit alongside, not replace, social protection, as a permanent feature of the labour market,” said De Schutter.
“If designed in this way, it would play a hugely important role in wiping out unemployment, ending the race to the bottom on working conditions, and providing the income security and social inclusion millions urgently need to break free from poverty,” he said.
* Access the report:
June 2023
Action to reinforce respect for freedom of opinion and expression
“If development is to be meaningful, then the voices of the most disadvantaged in society must be heard and heeded, and civil society and the media must be free to hold the powerful to account,” Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression says in her report on freedom of expression and sustainable development to the Human Rights Council.
“Those who dare to speak truth to power or shine the light on human rights violations, illicit financial flows, tax evasion, corruption and illegal exploitation of natural resources are being gagged, threatened, prosecuted, attacked or killed with impunity,” Khan said.
“Laws on access to information have been widely adopted but requests for information are often denied because of a culture of official secrecy, serious gaps in the scope and implementation of the laws, lack of capacity and resources, a tokenistic approach to participation and uneven access to the Internet,” she said.
“New technologies are creating new inequalities, disproportionately affecting women and girls, Indigenous communities, the poor and the marginalised,” she warned.
The connectivity of those who are already well connected is being enhanced while billions who could have been connected for a fraction of that sum were left unconnected, Khan said.
Khan underscored the value that free flow of information and public debate bring to sustainable development. “They empower individuals, promote accountability, allow Governments to be better informed and more responsive to the needs of their people, and make markets more efficient, generating social and economic dividends,” the expert said.
She urged States to follow good practices of multistakeholder partnerships to build transparency and trust, media freedom to enable reporting on corruption and wrongdoing, and civic space to promote meaningful engagement with communities.
The expert called on companies, including the digital technology sector, to undertake human rights due diligence across their value chain and disclose the impact of their activities on human rights and sustainability.
“As world leaders prepare for the High-Level Summit on Sustainable Development in September, States which most vocally support the Sustainable Development Goals must come forward to invest more heavily in the rights to expression, information and participation that the 2030 Agenda so clearly endorses,” Khan said.
Mar. 2023
States must pursue justice “at home” for crimes of torture, to achieve meaningful accountability, healing and reconciliation, the UN independent expert on torture said today.
In a report to the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, Alice Edwards, urged national authorities to take ownership of justice processes and operate as primary responders in cases of torture and other inhuman treatment.
“Despite the growth in international criminal courts and tribunals and our collective commitment to those entities, their capacity to deal with the scale and scope of torture crimes being perpetrated today will never be enough,” Edwards said, emphasising the importance of national proceedings.
In her report, the Special Rapporteur pointed at a “glaring gap” between the promise and reality of the international prohibition of torture and recalled that every State has a duty to criminalise and investigate crimes of torture in national law, prosecute or extradite suspects, and sentence offenders with penalties that reflect the gravity of the offence.
“The national duty to investigate torture is alarmingly, universally, under-implemented,” she said.
The report highlighted the main obstacles hindering full and prompt investigations into allegations of torture, including institutional, regulatory, political, and practical challenges. The report also shared promising State practices to implement the duty to investigate torture, including documenting that at least 105 countries have adopted an explicit criminal offence of torture.
Despite this progress, Edwards said too few incidents of torture and other ill-treatment are officially reported, and – of those that are reported – cases regularly collapse or are withdrawn before a satisfactory conclusion.
“The difference between a crime of torture and an ordinary crime is that torture is first and foremost a crime committed or enabled by public officials. This power asymmetry between the accuser and the accused puts the alleged victim in a situation of particular precarity,” the Special Rapporteur said.
Edwards’ report documented how victims were often threatened and intimidated into withdrawing their allegations, risking vexatious counter-allegations and associated reputational damage, or distrusting the wheels of justice.
"Complainants may still be in custody or under the control of the very authorities they are making allegations against," she said. "The risks of retaliation and violence - including further torture or 'disappearance' - are real. The stakes are high.”
The expert called on States to establish independent investigative bodies that ensure that victims and survivors were ‘given voice’, fully empowered and could actively participate in any legal proceedings involving torture.
She urged States to treat complainants with due respect, compassion and dignity and to offer appropriate rehabilitation and protection measures.
“Early access to trauma counselling and other forms of rehabilitation are not only in the interests of complainant’s mental health, but they also help them become more reliable witnesses in court proceedings,” she said.
"National torture trials are not a threat to state authority. On the contrary, what threatens a government’s legitimacy is torturing persons, refusing to investigate and try the perpetrators, and allowing the torturers to go unpunished," Edwards said.
“A state’s legitimacy will be enhanced if they indeed defend truth and justice, rather than be seen as accomplices in the crime of torture.”
Mar. 2023
Transformation of services for persons with disabilities - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Gerard Quinn.
There is a clear need to adopt a new philosophy to govern the design and delivery of support to persons with disabilities based on their moral agency, autonomy and social inclusion. States must transition away from service models based exclusively on impairment.
New kinds of partnerships are needed to realize this new philosophy. States must redefine the “public interest” and determine how to invest in and shape the provision of services. Support must shift from medically dominated systems that rely on coercion to support that is freely chosen.
Active consultation with persons with disabilities is therefore required, to determine what persons with disabilities need and want. The business sector must embrace its human rights responsibilities and become a partner for change.
Change requires a new lexicon that rejects labels such as “client”, “consumer” and “service user” and focuses on the core rights of citizenship.
Policy tools to manage change include supported decision-making models to create individualized support, peer support networks, independent living centres, standards for public procurement and contract compliance, competition law to create space for new market entrants, and new technology, including artificial intelligence.
The provision of support for families, collection of data on system performance, incentivization of new support providers, adoption of standards for service providers and enhancement of oversight and monitoring are likewise needed.
* Access the report:

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