Friday, April 12, 2024

UN at 75 – the global right to food

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By Steven van Hoogstraten.

An impressive TV celebration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations was broadcasted from the Peace Palace on 24 October 2020. Many facets of the work of the worlds largest peace institution were highlighted, and the SG of the UN Antonio Guttierez spoke to us via the screen like many other guests did.  Such a broad lens was used, however,  that it hardly gave credit to the important work that is done in the Peace Palace by the highest judicial organ of the UN , the International Court of Justice. The ICJ is performing its duties of settling disputes under international law in the Hague since 1946. The lack of a live audience due to Covid made this broadcast a true TV show, the Hall of the Peace Palace being the studio. But is was certainly informative and entertaining for a large public, and a fitting tribute to the UN.

One the items was the adjudication of the Nobel Peace prize for 2020 to the World Food Program. The work of the WFP is absolutely essential to combat hunger in the world, and the prize seems more than well deserved. The Sustainable Development Goals of the UN cover  the eradication of hunger: Goal nr 2 states  boldly “Zero Hunger by 2030”. Unfortunately, at present more than 840 million people are considered to be in a situation of severe food insecurity, so the goal of Zero Hunger by 2030 is for the moment a pretty far cry. In fact the level of food insecurity is recently even on the rise, due to regional conflict and climatic disasters. All the more reason to highlight the work of the World Food Program, which provided assistance in 2019 to 100 million people in 88 countries (Asia, Africa and South America)

The Nobel Committee in Oslo awards the prize to the WFP “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict” . The Nobel Committee further noted that the link between hunger and armed conflict is a vicious circle: war and conflict can cause food insecurity and hunger, just as hunger and food insecurity can cause latent conflicts to flare up and trigger the use of violence. “We will never achieve the goal of zero hunger unless we also put and end to war and armed conflict”.

In this connection it is of interest to bear in mind that the  UN Security Council in its resolution 2417 strongly condemned the use of starvation as a method of warfare. The Security Council underlined as well that the use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime. South Sudan is often cited as an exemple. So the issues of starvation and the ICC are not totally unrelated.

The right to food

There is a human right which is named “the right to food “ . Derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to food was enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic , Social and Cultural Rights (art 11) . At present some 170 states are parties to this covenant. The actuality of the right to food was highlighted at the World Food Summit of 1996 ( Rome), where the Heads of State and Government “reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free of hunger”. The  World Food Summit pledged its politcal will to achieving food security for all.

But what does this right to food mean in reality ? It is more a policy incentive than an individual right, that is for sure. The right to food underpins the responsibilities of States to make food available at reasonable prices,  and in a distribution that may be seen as equitable. But it is not at all an individual “right to be fed”. Governments are – generally speaking –  not obliged under international law to hand out food. 

Interestingly, the European Union refrained from including the right to food in its Charter of Human Rights, now part of the EU Treaties. It is said that there was uneasiness or even fear about the legal effects of introducing such a right in a binding piece of EU legislation.

All-in all, the right to food is definitely an element of support in the world fight against hunger. If only it could be made operational, which means in some way enforceable before a court of law. That would help, but is it realistic to think in that direction ?  


Photography by Roy Strik.

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