The Human Right to Food in Malawi: Report of an International Fact-Finding Mission
THE HUMAN RIGHTS FRAMEWORK
When the United Nations Charter was adopted in 1945, it created a common
vision for international relations. It called upon member States to pledge
“universal respect for and observance of human rights” (Article 55) and
it required States to take “joint and separate action” to implement these
rights (Article 56). Subsequently, in 1948 the United Nations (UN) adopted
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as an articulation of
exactly what those rights would entail.3
The principles put forward in the UDHR were codified in international law
by two separate treaties—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 adequate food also referred to as the right to be “free
from hunger” (Article 11). Almost all governments in the world have ratified
at least one of these two treaties and thereby the concept of rights, including
economic, social and cultural rights. One hundred and fifty-three States are
currently party to the ICESCR, representing an international consensus on
which international cooperation can and should be built.
All rights—be they economic, social, cultural, civil or political rights—share
common governing principles: they are universal and must be applied without
discrimination; they are indivisible, interdependent and inter-related; and
they require mechanisms for effective remedies when violations occur.
Following the World Food Summit in 1996 the UN Committee on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights, the body of experts that monitors State compliance
with the treaty, was mandated to further elaborate the normative content
3 All declarations, treaties and general comments referred to here can be accessed on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, www.ohchr.org.
20 The Human Right to Food in Malawi
of the human right to adequate food in the form of a “general comment”.4
General Comment 12, devoted specifically to the human right to adequate
food, was adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1999. One
of its lasting contributions was to provide a tripartite typology for monitoring
State compliance with obligations under the ICESCR. The typology—to
respect, to protect and to fulfill—is now generally applied to all economic,
social and cultural rights.
The obligation to respect requires State accountability for its own action
or failure to act with regards to human rights; the obligation to protect
requires States to take all necessary steps to ensure that non-State actors do
not violate human rights; the obligation to fulfill requires States to provide
an institutional framework to ensure that human rights can be effectively
enjoyed in practice.
4 Although general comments are not legally binding documents, they are considered to be authoritative interpretations of specific rights or principles governing rights.
The FAO Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the
right to adequate food in the context of national food security
At the World Food Summit: Five Years Later in 2002, Heads of State and Government reaffirmed their
commitment to human rights and they invited the FAO to develop a set of Guidelines to support the
efforts of Member States to meet their right to food obligations. An intergovernmental working group was
established in November 2002 and after two years of negotiations the Guidelines were adopted by the FAO
Council in November 2004.
The Guidelines provide practical steps for governments, emphasizing that the human right to food must be
implemented based on national strategies which begin with a careful analysis of the causes of hunger and
the existing legislative and policy framework. The Guidelines also recognize that implementation begins
by identifying vulnerable or marginalized groups and developing processes that will contribute towards the
elimination of inequality. In addition, the Guidelines provide suggestions for appropriate development of
market systems, institutions, legal frameworks and access to resources.
The Guidelines are significant because the represent the first time that governments set about to
interpret an economic, social or cultural right and to recommend actions for its realization. They thereby
contributed to the mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system as requested by the UN Secretary
General in his package for UN reform.
The Guidelines are available at http://www.fao.org/righttofood/en/highlight_51596en.html
The Human Rights Framework 21
General Comment 12 also addresses the international dimension of the right
to food, requiring States to take “joint and separate action to achieve the
full realization of the right to adequate food” and “in international agreements
whenever relevant, ensure that the right to adequate food is given
It is helpful to read General Comment 12 in relation to other general comments
issued by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
General Comment 3, on the nature of State obligations and General Comment
9, on domestic application of the Covenant provide additional guidance
with regards to the justiciability of human rights and the scope of national
legislation. Together with the two covenants, these interpretive statements
provided the basis and references for much of the FAO Guidelines drafting