UN Human Rights Council: The Right to Food

Hunger is an issue on which governments can agree. No one is for hunger. Thus, at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, governments from 186 states all agreed to reduce by half the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015. This goal was taken over as one of the UN Millennium Goals in 2000. The right to adequate food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger is enshrined in a number of human rights instruments to which states are committed. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food." In a series of studies carried out by the UN, access to adequate food as both an individual right and a collective responsibility is stressed.

Hunger has been considered a chief sign of poverty, of underdevelopment, of the lack of good government to protect its population. Lord Boyd-Orr, the first director of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts against hunger. José de Castro of Brazil, who was an early independent chairman of the FAO Council, was an early champion of the struggle against hunger. Amartya Sen has stressed in his early writings the link between famine and the political context, especially in his writings on the 1942 famine in Bengal, India.

One increasingly common approach to poverty since the 1980s is "sustainable livelihood" concentrating on the individual household and its interaction as a family rather than looking at individuals as though they did not live in families. Enabling poor farmers to produce more food for their families and only then selling the excess is widely seen as one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty and hunger and to ensure that the food supply continues to grow. Future increases in food production will have to come from raising productivity using the same amount of land and water without destroying biodiversity or harming the environment. There is a growing consensus for the need to find a way of farming which is both sustainable and productive. Such a shift to a household emphasis on food production is often overshadowed by governmental debates in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in bilateral trade talks on liberalised trade in food or governmental subsidies for certain crops. While agricultural trade is important for some countries, in terms of poverty reduction it is of minor importance.

Because of the wide consensus on the need to organize the fight against hunger, it was natural that the Commission on Human Rights and now the Human Rights Council should appoint a Special Rapporteur to draw attention to hunger. The governments probably thought that such a Special Rapporteur would raise humanitarian issues such as greater donations of food to the World Food Programme and not political issues. They did not look too closely at the background of the person nominated since he was a Swiss, and the Swiss are known for their sense of discretion, balance and compromise. Had the government representatives looked more closely at the writings of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, they might have been less surprised by his hard-hitting attacks on the structures that prevent food production.

Jean Ziegler and I were teaching colleagues for 15 years at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva – an institute where rural development and popular participation were priority subjects of study. Paulo Freire who spent his years of exile from Brazil in Geneva often led seminars at the institute where he developed his ideas of "the pedagogy of the oppressed." Ziegler was also elected to the Swiss Parliament as the representative of Geneva for the Socialist Party. When he entered Parliament, he was its youngest member and one of the few who was professionally concerned with developing countries. He was constantly re-elected until the Geneva Socialist party put term limits on its representatives. On leaving Parliament, he used his wide political contacts to have the Swiss government suggest him as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Once Ziegler named, the Swiss government gave money so that the Graduate Institute could set up a team of researchers to work on food conditions and food policies.

Jean Ziegler is a person who has never passed up a possibility of a newspaper or a television interview. He has always developed good relations with journalists. Thus his frequent interviews in the Geneva press and TV come quickly to the attention of the Geneva-based diplomats. Ziegler’s strong statements on Darfur after visits to refugees in Chad was an important factor in the holding of a Special Session on Darfur of the Human Rights Council. His report on the way cluster bombs in Lebanon prevented farmers from planting their crops was ammunition for the growing efforts to ban cluster weapons. His interview calling Gaza an open-air prison did not please supporters of Israeli policy.

Now, yet somewhat late, the governments in the Human Rights Council are trying to draw up a "code of conduct" which would prevent Special Rapporteurs from giving interviews to the media along with a host of other restrictions. It is always Jean Ziegler who serves as the image of what governments do not want. He has a high profile among NGO representatives as an example of what a Special Rapporteur can do if he has the political will, though sometimes a less direct attack can be more effective. Some governments have been pushing the Swiss government to suggest a different person as Special Rapporteur who fits better the Swiss image of discretion and balance.

In the year that he still has for his term as Special Rapporteur, Ziegler will probably continue to hit hard, especially concerning Africa which is the geographic area he knows best. He sees clearly the relation between hunger and conflict and has stressed the conflicts in Sudan, the Democratic Congo, northern Uganda, as well as food shortfalls in Niger, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland. He has highlighted the impact of hunger on child soldiers as well as African migrants trying to get to Europe to escape "famine, chronic hunger and deprivation."

As with other Special Rapporteurs, Jean Ziegler can send on to governments information concerning food policy. Much of the information is brought to his attention from specialized non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or academic research. Ziegler has interpreted his mandate widely and also sends communications to international financial institutions such as The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as to, at least one, private company (Coca Cola). However of 46 communications sent in 2006, only 12 governments replied along with the Coca Cola Company. Most governments do not reply, no doubt in the not too secret hope that he will go away. Some governments just justify their policies, while a very few do investigate the issue. Since Ziegler has his research team at the Graduate Institute, he can continue to follow a situation. He is not the sort of person to drop an issue once he has raised it.

The style and the impact of Special Rapporteurs varies. They are an important instrument in awareness-building of specific situations. They are also close allies of NGO representatives and are an important link between NGOs the UN Human Rights Secretariat and national government representatives. Efforts on the part of some governments to limit the working of Special Rapporteurs must be closely watched and blocked if needs be.

Also see these two related articles on the UN Human Rights Council:

UN Human Rights Council: A Focus on Human Trafficking

UN Human Rights Council: One Year’s Record, Lights and Shadows

Rene Wadlow is the Editor of www.transnational-persdpectives.org and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.