The Right to Food: A Fundamental Human Right

What is the Right to Food?

The right to food is a human right. It is the most fundamental human right to ensuring that people live with dignity, free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. The right to food was formally recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reinforced afterwards by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Jean Ziegler, the first UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food has defined the right to food as: “the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”

The Food Rights Of Children. Courtesy Piccolo Chef

Olivier De Schutter, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food stated: “The right to food is not primarily the right to be fed after an emergency. It is the right, for all, to have legal frameworks and strategies in place that further the realization of the right to adequate food.”

How is the State Responsible for Ensuring the Right to Food?

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is the first international human rights instrument that creates state obligations specific to the right to food. It means that all states who are party to the covenant must take all necessary steps, including the adoption of legislative measures, to ensure the full realization of every person’s right to adequate food. Central to this covenant is that the right to food will be upheld without discrimination of any kind.

In 1996, at the World Food Summit in Rome, governments reaffirmed the importance of the right to food by committing themselves by cutting the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition by half, by 2015. This commitment was rejuvenated in 2000, when world leaders expressed their pledge again to halve the number of people living in hunger by 2015 as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Article 11 of the ICESCR stipulates states’ responsibilities to take appropriate steps, individually and through international co-operation to achieve progressive realization of the right to food. The article also imposes a core obligation for states to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger even in times of natural or other disasters. The covenant highlights the need to develop and reform agrarian systems in order to maintain the most efficient utilization of natural resources for long-term sustainability, equitable distribution, and food security.
In 1999, state obligations on securing the right to food were elaborated on in general comment 12 of the Committee on ICESCR. The right to adequate food, like any other human right, imposes three types of obligations on States parties: i) the obligations to respect, ii) to protect and iii) to fulfill. The obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires that states do not to take any measures that result in preventing such access. The obligation to protect requires the State to ensure that enterprises or persons do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food. The obligation to fulfill, or facilitate, means the State must proactively engage in activities intended to strengthen all people’s access to and utilization of resources and means that will ensure their livelihoods. In turn, the obligation to fulfill incorporates both an obligation to facilitate and an obligation to provide. Therefore, whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, states have the obligation to fulfill that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters.

These obligations were again endorsed by states when the FAO Council of 2004 adopted the Right to Food Guidelines. These are a set of Voluntary Guidelines that support member states’ efforts to achieve the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. The voluntary guidelines suggest for the coordinated efforts of relevant government ministries, agencies and offices to ensure the concerted implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, plans and programmes (Guideline 5), and for a legal framework through constitutional or legislative review that facilitates the realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security (Guideline 7). The guidelines also request that member states carry out land and other policy reforms in order to secure efficient and equitable access to property and to strengthen pro-poor growth.

What is the Compliance Level of Bangladesh?

As a ratifying state to the core international human rights treaties – including the ICESCR – Bangladesh has pursued its obligations to secure the right to food for its people. Apart from upholding its covenant obligations, Bangladesh is also committed to ensuring the right to food under the UN Millennium Declaration and World Food Summit Declarations.

The Bangladesh Constitution recognizes citizens’ right to food in state policy. Article 15 (a) of the Constitution stipulates the fundamental responsibility of the State to securing to its citizens the provision of the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care. However, the Bangladesh Constitution does not explicitly recognize the right to food as a fundamental human right and is not judicially justifiable in a direct manner. There is also no specific legislative framework in Bangladesh towards achieving the progressive realization of the right to food in the context of national food security. Further, the Government’s social safety net – which aims to safeguard the food rights of millions of people – is not implemented from a rights-based framework of entitlements, non-discrimination, and accountability.

Despite recent progress in food grain production and poverty reduction, a large number of people still remain unable to access food in the quantity, diversity and regularity required for a food-secure life. The Global Food Security Index 2012 ranked the nation 81st out of 105 countries – the second last in South Asia. In the index scoring system, Bangladesh’s overall score was 34.6 (out of 100), with 33.02 for affordability, 37.6 for availability and 30.4 for quality and safety. These scores reflect a wide range of challenges impeding Bangladesh from making balanced and sustainable progress. The challenges include jobless growth, inequality and disparity (particularly women, ethnic and religious minorities), weak governance system, inefficient public food management system, limited access to market of small and marginalized farmers, climate change induced threats, discriminatory legal provisions towards women’s land ownership and defective land ownership system, lack of coordination among implementing agencies and gap between policy and implementation.

What are Our Demands?

  • Adopt a legal framework on the right to food;
  • Design and deliver a unified Social Safety Net programme from a rights-based approach;
  • Consider emerging challenges affecting food security like climate change, urbanization, price volatility and financial market instability in designing and implementing food security initiatives;
  • Adopt a comprehensive agrarian and land reform programme and ensure coherence with all agriculture and food security related policy instruments;
  • Strengthen the progress review process with an authentic database both at national and regional level to reduce disparity and inequality at all levels;
  • Finally, ensure efficient coordination across all of the relevant implementing agencies.

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