Hard times for the right to food in international negotiations

Author: Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

[Editors’ Note: The Editors are particularly thankful to the author for the opportunity to publish her post on our website. We consider this post to be particularly relevant and timely given the recent report on the link between pesticides and human rights violations that the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics presented at the United Nations. The document underlines the denials by the agroindustry of the hazards of certain pesticides, the scale of their impacts on health, as well as the inappropriate shifting of blame to farmers for misusing its products and their aggressive and unethical marketing tactics.]

Previous posts appeared in this series have presented some good news on the recognition of the right to food throughout the world. Twenty-three countries now have explicit norms in their Constitutions for the protection of the right to food, and several countries are in the process of revising their constitutions to include right to food. Moreover, most of the countries have implicit recognition through broader rights such as ‘right to adequate standard living’ and the ‘right to live in dignity’ that allow implicit recognition through judicial interpretation. Nevertheless most of the time constitutional principles might not be enough to have judicial remedy. In last decade a number of countries have introduced framework laws. Latin America is leading this recognition but we also see encouraging developments in Europe. Belgium has a right to food bill in its Parliament, the Lombardia Region already passed a regional law, and Milan and Turin are making legal prescriptions to protect this right via their local food policies.

However, the success of the right to food at national or local level is not matched by a strong affirmation of this right in the international arena. On the one hand, the twenty years after the 1996 World Food Summit have been characterized by an increase in the work of scholars, practitioners, activists and communities to obtain the recognition and the enforcement of this right at all levels. On the other hand, my experience as UN Special Rapporteur has provided me with the opportunity to witness how the political and legal weight of this right in State-to-State negotiations has been opposed and, as a consequence, put at the margin of international negotiations. As a consequence, embedding the right to food in international agreements or in the global regulatory framework appears a harder task today than it was two decades ago. To support this point, I am giving two examples of international agreements that should be familiar to the readers: the first one is the failure to include the right to food in the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement; the second one is the absence of the right to food language in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda (SDGs).

In relation to the Paris Agreement, it is true that the human rights approach was affirmed in the Preamble, but it happened only after a long struggle waged by the NGO community with the support of a few sympathetic States. However, the relevance of human rights was completely neglected and never mentioned in the operational provisions. There was even stronger opposition to the inclusion of right to food compared to other rights. In my opinion the culmination of the some delegates’ hostile view of the right to food, the interests of the big agri-businesses and successful interference of the agricultural lobby was the reason. Conversely, the “productivist” approach to food security (already contained in Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change), without considering that enough food is already available but not universally accessible, was explicitly reiterated and stressed.

As in other areas, the international preoccupation with climate change has transferred the focus of concern to functional and technical solutions at the expense of normative and equity considerations that are embedded in a ‘right to food approach’. While climate justice was at least mentioned in the Paris Agreement, food justice was ignored, to my despair.

The second example of the strong resistance against human right language is represented by the final text of the SDGs as adopted in 2014. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to affirm the right to food if the world was really to achieve Goal #2 ‘End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture’? As for the Paris climate change agreement, in the SDG final decision to obscure a human rights approach to food was not a coincidence but the outcome of an organized effort not to use a language that could introduce effective constraints on countries’ and private sector’s activities, but rather to adopt “non-legally binding” concepts such as “no one left behind”, whose weakness also reverberates in the monitoring mechanism.

These two examples show that the enthusiasm around the right to food that characterizes some contexts should not be confused with a global victory. On the contrary, we live in a period where supporting human rights in general, and the right to food in particular, is becoming an uphill battle. The widespread rise of the chauvinistic nationalism, the influential market driven narrative, and the recognition of the transformative power of the right to food are making it unfashionable and problematic for governments to support human rights and to strengthen their duties and obligations vis-a-vis the world citizens.

In the specific case of Europe, it is worth stressing that the impact of Brexit on the right to food should not be discounted and that the European Convention of Human Rights, unlike other regional human rights mechanisms in the Americas and Africa, does not have yet a provision affirming the right to food. This void needs to be discussed publicly, especially now when Europe is struggling with an ongoing refugee crises, increased political isolationism and mounting figures of austerity-led food insecurity. So far, even influential Western based human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not yet prioritized the defense of economic, social and cultural rights in the EU context, least to say the right to food. They can be pivotal in opening up a debate on the right to food in Europe. I urge them to do so.



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