Are Human Rights an Appropriate Tool for Food Governance?

Author: Carol Choi, FLF M.Res student

As a push for countries to adopt the right to food as a human right is well underway, I find myself hesitating at the concept of human rights in international governance.  Jessica Almqvist duly notes the “scope of application” (Almqvist, 30) covered by the notion of human rights as applicable to all people.  It’s in this universality that gives me cause to wonder.  Who and what is the concept of universal individual rights legitimizing?

In his blog post, Boaventura de Sousa Santos traces the genealogy of human rights.  He places the conception of human rights with contentious origins, beginning with the division of metropolitan and colonial societies.  Law and rights, he claims, were only meant to apply to metropolitan societies—a division that, he argues, still continues through human rights doctrines and international law.  With deep roots in exclusion, the hegemony of human rights today, continues to close out what de Sousa calls “alternate grammars and discourses of emancipation,” which could be used to build “counter-hegemonic conception[s]” of human rights.

Unchecked, unbridled acceptance of human rights hedges on an unchallenged status. Antony Anghie points out that at the end of the Cold War, western governments used international human rights law as a way to “universalize the political institutions of the liberal democratic state” (Anghie, 254).  In this way, he establishes the links between ‘legitimate governance’ and human rights discourse.  It’s through a political battle that the concept of universality in human rights is ultimately instituted

With a longstanding history of being used as a political tool, the institution of human rights has yet to disconnect from its western imperialist roots.  A major criticism of human rights is in its multitude and ambiguity.  Eric Posner, in his article, points out a major flaw in its governance as having a “huge number of vaguely defined rights [which] ends up giving governments enormous discretion.”   Numerous and interpretative—who decides how they are to be understood, and which should overrule what rights?  With a system that focuses on those who lay claims to injustice, it often brings support to groups who are already large and mobilized enough.  The reach of human rights is not necessarily universal.  As Almqvist also reiterates, the support of these groups tends to come from western NGO’s whose dependence on public funds prioritizes “victims of injustice with whom it is easier to empathize” (Almqvist, 32).  In keeping with imperialist history, it is the western societies who continue to dictate cultural norms and morals through a narrative of universal human rights.

Those in support of human rights often highlight its ability to raise the moral bar.  Yet with a list so numerous and vague, it’s difficult and confusing to establish a notion of success.  Stephen Kinzer recounts his experiences as a human rights advocate in his article in The Guardian.  His increasing disillusion with the institution of human rights stems from a naivety of human rights groups who protect and protest, without consideration of history or effects.  He points to Darfur where human rights support a prolonged war.  He also points to Rwanda, where the current regime is protested for restrictions of ethnically-based policies and speech, despite having recently experienced a brutal genocide in 1994, or the fact that most Rwandans were happy with the stability, peace and lift of extreme poverty his regime promises.  He finds the disconnect of human rights activists in understanding that “in many choices, there is a stark choice between one set of right and the other” to be a dangerous one.  They can focus on an ideal, but will not understand the complete picture of a situation.  Who should understand better what is needed in governing a region than the people of the region itself?

Amartya Sen notes an “attraction in assuming institutions to be inviolable once they are imagined to be rationally chosen by some hypothetical just agreement, irrespective of what the insertions actually achieve” (Sen, 84).  It’s this blindness to understanding the difference in the ideal and in “just results” that are often established with a happy coincidence or amalgam of unpredicted circumstances that I find dangerous with human rights.

While I support human rights for the good they support, I worry more for the uncontested acceptance of the institution of human rights to place judgement on societies and their governance.  There is a need for understanding its roots, its historical uses, its flaws as a way to answer better for who and what they are actually serving to achieve.  It’s Sen’s idea of promoting the idea of a good outcome versus a good institution that leads me to believe that perhaps the use of human rights in food governance should also develop an exit plan.


Suggested Readings:

Almqvist, Jessica.  “A Critique of the Current Human Rights Approach to Culture,” in Human Rights, Culture and the Rule of Law.  Portland:  Hart Publishing,  2009.  pp. 24-29

Anghie, Antony. “Governance, human rights and the universal,”  in Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  pp. 254-258

Sen, Amartya. “Institutions and Persons,” in The Idea of Justice.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2009. pp. 75-86


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