Rights & Democracy and Groupe de Recherche et d’Appui au Milieu Rural (GRAMIR)
Using the Human Rights Framework
When the United Nations Charter was adopted, it called upon nations to “pledge universal respect for and observance of human rights” (article 55). Further it required that states take “joint and separate action” to implement those rights. Subsequently, the United Nations adopted in 1948, a Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a statement of principles which were soon protected in international law by two governing covenants — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The ICESCR recognizes the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food which is described as the right to be “free from hunger.” One hundred and fifty-six states are currently party to the ICESCR, representing an international consensus upon which cooperation between states can be built. Unfortunately, Haiti has yet to ratify the ICESCR, but it has adopted companion treaties that protect the rights of particular vulnerable groups including children (the Convention on the Rights of the Child) and women (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).
In 2004, the FAO adopted the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security (the Guidelines).4 The Guidelines offer a practical tool to assist states as they develop programs and policies designed to implement their right to food commitments pursuant to the ICESCR. Since adopting the Guidelines, the FAO has developed a number of companion tools. Notably, these include the Guide on Elaborating Framework Law for the Right to Food and the Guide to Conducting a Right to Food Assessment (forthcoming).
All human rights are governed by an over-arching set of common principles: human rights are universal and should be enjoyed without discrimination; human rights are indivisible, interdependent and inter-related; states are accountable for human rights implementation and must ensure access to effective remedies when human rights violations occur.
Following the World Food Summit in 1996, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), a treaty monitoring body, was mandated to further articulate the human right to food by means of a “General Comment.” Although general comments are not legally binding, they are considered to be authoritative interpretations of specific rights or principles governing rights. General Comment 12 was adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1999.
The General Comment provided a typology for monitoring the different levels of state obligations under the ICESCR.5 The typology — to respect, to protect and to fulfil – is now generally applied to all economic, social and cultural rights. The obligation to respect refers to the state’s commitment not to undermine enjoyment of human rights either through action or failure to act; the obligation to protect requires the state to ensure that persons living within its jurisdiction do not suffer human rights violations at the hands of non-state actors; the obligation to fulfil requires the state to provide an institutional framework to ensure that rights can be effectively enjoyed in practice (to facilitate, and in cases of natural disaster or emergency to provide).
The General Comment also explains that states should implement the right to food progressively. Thus, in matters of food security, a human rights framework requires the government to progressively realize the right of its citizens to produce or otherwise access with dignity the food necessary to live an active and healthy life.6 Progressive realization can be understood as a measurement tool for monitoring purposes and also as a planning tool for sequencing of policies and programs.7
4- To consult the Guidelines: http://www.fao.org/righttofood/en/highlight_51596en.html.
5- See Asbjorn Eide, The Right to Adequate Food and to be Free from Hunger, Updated study on the right to food, Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, UNCHR 51st session, doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/12, 1999.
6-The Right to Food in Practice – Implementation at the National Level, FAO, 2006, p. 4. http://www.fao.org/docs/eims/upload/214719/AH189_en.pdf.
7- It is helpful to read General Comment 12 in relation to other general comments issued by the CESCR. General Comment 2 on International Technical Assistance, General Comment 3 on the Nature of state Obligations, General Comment 9 on Domestic Application of the Covenant and General Comment 15 on the Right to Water are available on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/.