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Right to Food

Naomi Hossain: The right to food is common sense in Bangladesh

6 Mar, 17 | by BMJ

Horrifying new reports of famine on a vast scale in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria are emerging, signalling the lack of a real right to food among tens of millions of people. Climate change and conflict are leading to recurrent food crises. These unfolding episodes resemble the story of the last famine in Bangladesh, which was in 1974. In 1970, the Bhola cyclone killed half a million and left thousands more hungry; this was followed by the war for Liberation in 1971 with its large-scale human rights abuses. And then in 1974, the new nation of Bangladesh was devastated by the famine from which possibly 1.5 million people, already gravely weakened by poverty and recent events, died.

What marks Bangladesh out is that the 1974 famine had a positive outcome: it established a strong right to food that provided the foundation for further progress. Because, after all, what good could development projects do, if people were not eating well enough to survive?

The elite, the rural poor, and aid donors agreed on basic food security as a priority as it provides the foundation for bare survival. And this “subsistence crisis contract” has held up across successive governments of Bangladesh of all parties and regimes. The state, working with aid agencies and NGOs, has strengthened food security, at times by freeing food markets, at others by intervening for the vulnerable. A path towards labour-intensive industry has been followed, and social services have improved. NGOs worked wonders, in the space allowed. And hunger levels and disaster deaths have dropped, even if nutrition remains a moving target.

What Bangladesh has can be termed as the common sense approach to the right to food. This has a strong political foundation in the country’s history, but no formal legal basis to date. Yet this “common sense” right is no trivial matter. It reflects a broad social agreement on the obvious point that every Bangladeshi should be able to eat. It also includes a clear mandate for the state to act to make sure they can. Everyone understands what this means in practice, even if it is not always easy to enforce.

Qualitative research I have been involved with in Bangladesh and nine other countries in which we  looked purposely into how people view the right to food suggests that views elsewhere are similar to those in Bangladesh. Food is widely seen as a natural right, and in times of disaster, protection against hunger is a matter of citizenship, obliging the state to act. We found a legal concept of the right to food was not always meaningful: some people in Vietnam and Indonesia thought it strange or irrelevant, while in Bolivia and Kenya, people with lawful rights to food were disillusioned with the reality of the right to food. I was struck by one popular political theory: that governments usually do their best to tackle subsistence crises because failure is so politically costly. In practice, of course, a government that fails is not easily held to account.

There is much talk, these days, of a lawful right to food to strengthen accountability for protecting against hunger and malnutrition. Human rights organisations like BLAST are championing a framework law to formalise the right to food. But the globalized effects of food price volatility, climate change, and conflict mean that the right to food is a transnational, and not only a national, challenge. With the “threat multiplier” that is climate change which poses an increasingly live threat to food security, Bangladesh has no time to lose in building itself a robust legal and institution framework for the right to food.

Naomi Hossain works at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. Her book about the effects of the Bangladesh famine, The Aid Lab, was published in 2017.

Competing interests: None declared.

Priscilla Claeys: Ensuring the right to food for rural working people

10 Feb, 17 | by BMJ

On 18 January 2017, the issue of the human rights of agricultural workers with no land of their own and other people working in rural areas was placed on the agenda of the European Council Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM) for the first time. As a researcher studying how the human rights regime is responding to contemporary challenges, I attended this meeting with great interest.

The fact that 80% of people living in poverty worldwide predominantly live in rural areas and are mostly employed in the agricultural sector is well established. What is less recognized, is the systematic discrimination against rural working people in the Global North. “It is about time the EU acknowledges there are ‘peasants’ in Europe, and recognize the need to protect their rights”, said representatives of La Via Campesina, a transnational agrarian movement, at the COHOM.  This systematic discrimination has led the EU to lose as much as a third of all its small farms in the last decade. Land concentration is massive (3 % of farmers now own 52 % of total farm land) and access to land for young farmers is an emerging problem. While more than half of European farmers will retire within 10 years, there is no framework in place to organize farm succession.

At COHOM, La Via Campesina and FIAN International, an international human rights organization dedicated to the right to food, made their case for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other people working in rural areas, which would recognize the rights of these groups to : a) access, manage, use, govern and control the land and other natural resources (forests, pastures, fisheries) they depend on for their livelihood, b) conserve, use, maintain and develop their own seeds, crops and genetic resources, and, c) a decent income and livelihood. Too often farmers have to sell products at prices that barely cover their production costs, as a result of unfair trade rules and corporate control over the food supply chain.

Though EU member states acknowledged the issue, they plainly rejected the need for a new international legal instrument. Denying the existence of normative gaps, EU delegates expressed the view that efforts should focus on fostering the—indeed lacking—implementation of existing human rights standards, such as the right to food. In my opinion, this position fails to recognize that, from the point of view of people living in rural areas, the right to food is really about the right to produce food.

For about half of the world’s population, the right to food is tied to the right to the means of production (land, seeds, water but also tools, credits, infrastructure) and to the right to public policies ensuring that one can make a living off the land. The draft UN Declaration explicitly recognizes the individual and collective right to land and natural resources, and the corresponding obligations of states to recognize and respect customary rights and the commons, protect rural communities from land grabbing, and conduct agrarian reforms where land concentration is too high. In addition, to ensure that peasants can sell their crops at fair prices, states would need to tackle abuses of corporate power and establish fair trade rules. These far-reaching implications make states reluctant to recognize these rights.

Fortunately, the UN Human Rights Council did not wait for the EU’s support to start negotiating the text of this Declaration. At its fourth session, in May 2017, an Intergovernmental Working Group will discuss a revised draft.. The EU has a few months to make it a priority to start addressing what the Secretary General of FIAN called an “urban bias”: the fact that the international human rights regime developed with no participation of rural people, in a way that only reflects the interests of urban populations, at the expense of food producers and the environment.  Will the EU stand for the rights of the rural poor, not only in the South but in the North as well? 

Priscilla Claeys is a Senior Research Fellow in Food Sovereignty, Human Rights and Resilience at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University (UK). 

Competing Interest: PC is a member of the board of FIAN Belgium. I am committed to the global struggle for the right to food and food sovereignty and have no other relevant conflict of interest to declare.

What can we learn from the European Union’s first right to food law?

20 Jan, 17 | by BMJ

By Tomaso Ferrando and Roberto Sensi.

In this second article on the #RightToFood, part of a BMJ Global Health series, we discuss our experience of the conception and enactment of a right to food law in Lombardia, Italy. The “Recognition, Protection and Promotion of the Right to Food,” was approved by the Lombardia Regional Council in November 2015. The law was the first to recognise this right within the European Union and was the result of a desire to have a policy in place after EXPO Milano 2015, in line with the Milan Charter and its recognition of the right to food as fundamental right. In our opinion, the law rightly approached the problem holistically and recognised the importance of locally based food systems and democratic participation in order to fully guarantee the right to nutritious food. However, its implementation is still lagging behind expectations. more…

Jose Luis Vivero-Pol and Tomaso Ferrando: Let’s talk about the right to food

10 Jan, 17 | by BMJ

Legal recognition of the right to food and nutrition can create the grounds for effective and systemic solutions for hunger and malnutrition. Recently, the media was abuzz with news of plans by the Scottish Equalities Secretary to legislate the right to food within Scottish law. This would be a step towards tackling food poverty in Scotland. This potential legislation will be historic, as Scotland will be the first country in the European Union (EU) to expressly recognize the right to food.

Despite rising numbers of food insecure households and a rise in the use of food banks all over Europe (see here and here), the right to food is completely absent from the fundamental EU treaties, the European Convention on Human Rights, and from the jurisprudence of national and regional courts. In other words, the right to food does not exist in the European laws, except for the recent regional law in Lombardia, Italy and the yet-to-be approved draft bill on the right to food in Belgium. more…

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