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January 01, 2010

The Human Right to Food and Dignity

by George Kent

Studying human rights treaties, we sometimes get lost in particulars and lose sight of the basics. What is the meaning of the “rights” part of the right to something, whatever that something might be? This essay explores the core meaning of rights, focusing on the sometimes misunderstood right to food.

Human Rights and Other Rights

People sometimes use the word rights as shorthand for human rights . That is unfortunate because there are many different kinds of rights: property rights, contract rights, consumer rights, and so on. A hospital might have a patient’s bill of rights, and prisoners might have their own rights, whether established by the local institution, the local government, or the national government. Organizations of many different kinds set out rights for their members.

Rights-based social systems can be conceptualized as a generic abstract form. In any well-developed rights system, there are three major roles to be fulfilled: the rights holders, the duty bearers, and the agents of accountability. The task of the agents of accountability is to make sure that those who have the duties carry out their obligations to those who have the rights. Thus, to describe or design a rights system, we need to know:

A. The nature of the rights holders and their rights;

B. The nature of the duty bearers and their obligations (duties) corresponding to the rights of the rights holders; and

C. The nature of the agents of accountability, and the procedures through which they ensure that the duty bearers meet their obligations to the rights holders. The accountability mechanisms include, in particular, the remedies available to the rights holders themselves.

Rights imply entitlements, which are claims to specific goods or services. Rights are, or are supposed to be, enforceable claims. There must be some sort of institutional authority to which rights holders whose claims are not satisfied can appeal to have the situation corrected. Enforceability means that the duty bearers must be obligated to fulfill the entitlements, and they must be held accountable for their performance.

If we agree that these ABCs are the key elements of rights systems, we can highlight these dimensions when exploring or assessing any concrete example. For example, we could study traditional rights systems based on local cultures to see how they identify rights, duties, and accountability. Analyzing rights systems in terms of these three elements would make it clear that rights involve much more than just norms or codes of ethics. Rights imply the existence of specific types of institutional arrangements.

The international human rights system, based on a series of international agreements, is one concrete manifestation of rights-based social systems. The term human rights is reserved for those rights that are universal and relate to human dignity. In principle, if one has a human right, one can make a claim that the government and others must do or desist from doing specific things to further human dignity. Human rights are universal, by definition.

While human rights are universal, they do allow some latitude for differing interpretations, depending on local circumstances. They are mainly, but not exclusively, about the obligations of national governments to people living under their jurisdictions, as spelled out in international human rights law. All the international human rights agreements are available on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Human Right to Adequate Food

The human right to adequate food has come into focus at the global level through a steady, decades-long process. This right was articulated as early as 1963, when a Special Assembly on Man’s Right to Freedom from Hunger met in Rome, and it has been mentioned at many subsequent global food conferences. Like many other meetings, in November 1996 the World Food Summit concluded with the declaration supporting “the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.”

Up to that point, talk about the right to food was mainly rhetorical, a nice flourish in global conferences, but there was little discussion of what it meant. The 1996 Summit was different, however, because in its concluding Plan of Action , Objective 7.4 called upon the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in consultation with relevant treaty bodies, and in collaboration with relevant specialized agencies and programmes of the UN system and appropriate intergovernmental mechanisms, to better define the rights related to food in Article 11 of the Covenant and to propose ways to implement and realize these rights. . . .

Several initiatives were taken to respond to this call, including supportive resolutions from the Commission on Human Rights; a Day of Discussion on Right to Food held by the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and Expert Consultations on the Human Right to Adequate Food held in Geneva, Rome, and Bonn. Then, in May 1999, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released its landmark document, Substantive Issues Arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: General Comment 12 (Twentieth Session, 1999), The Right to Adequate Food (Art. 11). Commonly known as General Comment 12, it is available on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This document constitutes a definitive contribution to international jurisprudence. Its Paragraph 6 presents the core definition:

The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.

General Comment 12 cites the foundation of the legally binding human right to adequate food in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It draws a distinction between the reference in that article’s first paragraph to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, and its second paragraph, which calls for recognizing “the fundamental right to freedom from hunger.” General Comment 12 says that “more immediate and urgent steps may be needed to ensure” the fundamental right to freedom from hunger. Thus, hunger and malnutrition signify more acute, more urgent problems than are indicated by inadequate food in itself.

The distinction is addressed again in Paragraph 6:

The right to adequate food will have to be realized progressively. However, States have a core obligation to take the necessary action to mitigate and alleviate hunger as provided for in paragraph 2 of article 11, even in times of natural or other disasters.

Thus it is important to distinguish the broad concern with food supplies from the immediate need to deal with hunger and malnutrition. The food-supplies approach focuses attention on what is in the family’s or the nation’s cupboard, while the concern with hunger and malnutrition focuses attention on the conditions of people’s bodies.

As explained in General Comment 12’s Paragraph 8, the core content of the right to adequate food implies . . .

The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture;

The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.

The distinction between availability and access is important. Paragraph 5 observes, “Fundamentally, the roots of the problem of hunger and malnutrition are not lack of food but lack of access to available food, inter alia because of poverty, by large segments of the world’s population.” When there is plenty of food around in the stores, there is food available , but people without money cannot make a claim on that food, so they do not have access to it.

Paragraph 7 explains that adequacy means that account must be taken of what is appropriate under given circumstances. Food security implies food being accessible for both present and future generations. Sustainability relates to long-term availability and accessibility.

Paragraph 14 summarizes the obligations of States as follows:

Every State is obliged to ensure for everyone under its jurisdiction access to the minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure their freedom from hunger.

Paragraph 15 draws out the different kinds or levels of obligations of the state. These obligations may be sorted as follows:

• Respect. “The obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires States parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access.”

• Protect. “The obligation to protect requires measures by the State to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive
individuals of their access to
adequate food.”

• Fulfill (facilitate). “The obligation to fulfil (facilitate) means the State must pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security.”

• Fulfill (provide). “Finally, 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 fulfil (provide) that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters.”

Or, to put it more simply,

• Respect means to do no harm to others.

• Protect means to prevent harm to others by third parties.

• Facilitate means to help others to meet their own needs.

• Provide means to meet others’ needs when they cannot do that themselves.

Historically, national and international responses to problems of malnutrition have been based on compassion and the argument that reducing malnutrition can benefit the society as a whole. These responses have ranged from small local feeding programs to large-scale international actions involving the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Bank, the World Food Program, and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Now, however, there is increasing recognition that adequate food is a human right, and thus there is a legal obligation to assure that all people get adequate food.

Other Rights to Food

People can have rights to food in a local hospital or prison that are not based on the human right to adequate food as formulated in international agreements. If everyone at a particular school agreed that all students should be entitled to, say, a piece of candy with every meal, then that would become a right at that school. That would be a locally established right, not a human right.

The U.S. government is one of the few in the world that opposes the idea of a human right to adequate food, based mainly on its long-standing opposition to the concept of economic rights. Nevertheless, within the United States, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children establish clear entitlements for people who meet the programs’ criteria for eligibility. They also have mechanisms of accountability such as the Fair Hearings available to those who feel they are not getting what they are supposed to get. Thus we can say that in the United States there are rights to food, but they are not based on international human rights agreements.

Similarly, in India there is a strong right-to-food law, but it was originally established on the basis of national law, not the international law relating to the human right to adequate food. The Supreme Court of India has specified the entitlements of children to midday meals in detail, including minimum levels of calories and protein, but this specification is based on national law, not international human rights law.

Often the distinction between the universal right to food based on international human rights agreements and rights of purely local origin is blurred because there is room for interpretation of international law. Also, social service programs are are often described as implementing international human rights even though they actually have local origins.


General Comment 12’s Paragraph 4 highlights the linkage of the human right to adequate food to “the inherent dignity of the human person” and points out that it is indispensable for the realization of other human rights. It is also inseparable from social justice. Thus it connects with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. This launching document of the modern human rights system begins by saying “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .” The first article of the declaration begins by affirming, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

General Comment 12 emphasizes that the right to adequate food “must not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with a minimum package of calories, proteins and other specific nutrients.” In other words, simply delivering prepackaged meals in the way one might deliver feed pellets to livestock cannot fulfill the right. That sort of approach would be incompatible with human dignity. Delivering such meals might be sensible in a short-term emergency, but it cannot be the means for realizing the human right to adequate food over the long run.

This means that with regard to the levels of State obligations, high priority should be placed on facilitating , by establishing conditions that enable people to provide for themselves. Providing food directly takes priority only when people cannot provide for themselves for reasons beyond their control.

Human rights are mainly about upholding human dignity, not about meeting physiological needs. Dignity does not come from being fed. It comes from providing for oneself.

International agencies sometimes treat the hunger problem through large-scale interventions based on specially formulated foods brought in from the outside. They are sometimes criticized for taking a “medical” approach to the problem. That description is inaccurate, because doctors generally talk with their patients. Theirs is actually more of a veterinary approach, with the beneficiaries not consulted at all, as if they were livestock.

In Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid, Jenny Edkins criticizes humanitarian assistance programs that “treat lives to be saved as bare life, not as lives with a political voice.” If people are to be addressed as dignified human beings, they should have a say as to how they are treated. To live in dignity, people must have the opportunity to have their voices heard, which is why every human rights–based program should have safe and effective recourse mechanisms available to the rights holders themselves. People should have institutionalized remedies available to them that they can call upon if they feel they are not being treated properly. There should be some meaningful action they can take if they feel their rights are not being respected.

These institutionalized recourse mechanisms ensure that rights holders have a voice, and thus a measure of dignity. Human rights are not simply about setting standards. The core of any human rights system lies in the way in which it ensures that rights holders will be heard.

As Ivan Illich put it in Tools for Conviviality , people need to provide for themselves because “people die when they are fed.” Ensuring that individuals’ biological nutritional needs are fulfilled through authoritarian measures is different from fulfilling one’s human right to food. Serving pork to a Muslim prisoner violates his human rights, even if it contains all the nutrients he needs.

In any well-structured society, the objective should be to move toward conditions under which all people can provide for themselves. If people have no chance to influence what and how they are being fed, if they are fed prepackaged rations or capsules or are fed from a trough, their right to adequate food is not being met, even if they get all the nutrients their bodies need.

The hunger problem is frequently addressed by the powerful in terms that are inherently humiliating. The issue needs to be handled as a partnership, based on genuine concern for the well-being of those who are hungry, and direct engagement with them.

Describing the human right to adequate food in terms of international human rights law might suggest that rights come as some sort of gift from above. However, a different perspective can be taken, as described by an NGO called EqualinRights:

EqualinRights moves from an understanding that human rights are tools to protect human dignity, as defined by people themselves from within local social and cultural contexts. This means that local dialogue on the meaning, relevance and application of human rights-based strategies within these different contexts is a critical starting point. Human rights come from within, not from without. So for us, our support is about facilitating the internal learning and self-empowering process for people. Applied in this way, we believe that human rights can be a very powerful framework for bringing change to unequal power structures and relationships that perpetuate poverty.

The human rights that are set out in international law do not originate there. Rather, that law codifies rights claims that come from a widespread moral consensus among ordinary people. Thus, local rights-based programs ought to be based at least in part on interpretations and assertions of rights that begin at the local level. They should include strong local components, with local people engaged as active participants, not only in the implementation but also in the design of such programs.

Rights should not be interpreted in a mechanical way. Rights are not just about the delivery of goods and services; they should be based on clear recognition of and respect for human dignity. In Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty , Joel Feinberg says,

Having rights enables us to “stand up like men,” to look others in the eye, and to feel in some fundamental way the equal of anyone. To think of oneself as the holder of rights is not to be unduly but properly proud, to have that minimal self-respect that is necessary to be worthy of the love and esteem of others. Indeed, respect for persons . . . may simply be respect for their rights, so that there cannot be the one without the other.

People commonly ask how it will be possible to feed future generations. The question is insulting. Why ask how people are to be fed, as if food had to be provided by some external agent? Most people are motivated to provide for themselves, and only need decent opportunities to do that. Why is it that most people can be valued as competent persons, while the hungry are regarded as little more than passive, gaping mouths? Who, when provided the means, would not feed themselves and their families?

George Kent

George Kent is professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i. Kent’s book on ending hunger worldwide (Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, Colorado) is expected to come out later this year.