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FIAN International

Voluntary guidelines on the right to adequate food:
From negotiation to implementation

FIAN International


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Voluntary Guidelines: A new instrument to promote the implementation of the right to adequate food
By Michael Windfuhr, Secretary General, FIAN International

The Council of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) adopted in November 2004 unanimously the text of a new legal instrument concerning the right to adequate food, which has the cumbersome title: the “Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security”. With the Voluntary Guidelines a practical tool box is now available on how to implement the right to adequate food at the national level. For FIAN, the international human rights organisation that has been working for a better recognition and implementation of the right to adequate food since 1986, it was a big success to get 187 governments to adopt such a new legal instrument on the right to adequate food. The text includes a good standard of interpretation of the right to adequate food. For around 20 years FIAN and other civil society organisations have invested quite an amount of lobby and advocacy work to achieve an international understanding of the content and the state obligations under the right to adequate food. Without such an understanding it was much more difficult to use the right to adequate food in concrete situations of violations of the right to food.

For a human rights organisation working on economic, social and cultural human rights (ESC-Rights) it has been essential to invest part of its capacity into widening the understanding and acceptance of ESC-Rights. FIAN concentrated a great part of its resources during its fi rst years until the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993 on achieving a better recognition of ESC-Rights and to overcome many of the misconceptions. While the Vienna conference proved to be an effective moment to improve the general recognition of the ESC-rights by highlighting the interdependence, the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all human rights, the specifi c understanding of each of these rights was still at the very beginning in the midnineties. It was therefore a strategic decision of FIAN to use the upcoming World Food Summit in 1996 (WFS) as an opportunity to bring forward the legal interpretation of the right to adequate food and nutrition. Today nine years later, much has been achieved in the follow-up work to the WFS. As direct results the UN-Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) developed a legal interpretation of the right to food with its General Comment No. 12 (GC 12) on the right to adequate food in 1999. In November 2004, the FAO Council unanimously adopted the “Voluntary Guidelines on the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security”. With these two new texts much of the necessary standard setting in international law has been achieved. Human rights organisations but also other legal experts including judges, who would like to understand the details of the right to food, now have enough material at their disposal that can be applied to specific case situations.

In order to understand what has been achieved at the WFS and in the follow up process afterwards, let us have a short look back: The right to adequate food received prominence in the context of the FAO during the World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996. The declaration adopted at the WFS reiterates the “fundamental right of every person to the right to food and to be free from hunger”. The emphasis on the right to adequate food in the WFS declaration and the subsequent follow-up work on the right to adequate food - based on the Plan of Action that was adopted in 1996 - was a great achievement because it focuses attention on what governments can contribute to ending hunger and malnutrition. Focusing on the role and responsibility of governments is important due to the fact that it is basically the lack of political will – which the FAO has been emphasising this since 1996 in all its documents – that is responsible for the persistence of hunger and malnutrition worldwide. If missing political will is at the core of the problem, governmental policy changes are needed to move forward in reducing the number of hungry and malnourished. This is why a rights-based approach to the problem of hunger and malnourishment is needed and can be extremely helpful: We have to identify what types of government policies that are responsible for creating or reducing hunger and malnutrition. If one looks carefully into the core causes of hunger and malnutrition today, one can see how great the importance of the quality of governance is for achieving progress in combating hunger. A rights based approach does not replace other forms of development policies, but it is a necessary complement in achieving long term success.

Besides knowing the absolute number of hungry and malnourished worldwide it is important to identify which groups are those most affected by hunger. The most recent endeavour to develop a typology of hunger was undertaken in the UN-system by the Task Force on Hunger of the United Nations Millennium Development Project. Their data show that close to 80 % of the world‘s hungry live in rural areas. The majority of the people facing hunger and malnutrition are smallholder farmers, depending mainly or partly on agriculture for their livelihoods. In fact, half of the number of hungry people is peasants who live from small plots of land and lack adequate access to productive resources such as land, water and seeds. Out of these smallholder peasants two thirds live on marginal soils and under environmentally difficult conditions, such as mountainous areas or such threatened by droughts or other natural risks, like flooding and mud slides. Additionally, 22 % of the ones suffering from hunger and malnutrition are landless families who often survive from income obtained under precarious working conditions as landless labourers. Additionally 8 % can be found in rural communities engaged in fishing, hunting and herding activities. About 20 percent of the hungry are urban – they constitute the fastest growing group.

The key lesson from the brief typology presented is that hunger and malnutrition are deeply entrenched in groups that are politically and geographically marginalized and live in relatively remote areas. Fighting hunger and malnutrition requires tackling the problems of discrimination and marginalization that characterise the situation of those families and persons affected. Small holder farmers on marginal lands often lack access to secure land titles, to credits, agricultural extension services, to local markets and agricultural research. Landless families lack access to jobs or productive resources such as land, seeds or water. The lack of access to productive resources or jobs makes families unable to produce or to buy adequate food. Hunger is therefore less a problem of the total amount of production as often argued, but rather a question of securing access to such productive resources. The role of governments is important, not related to production but in the creation and securing of an enabling environment. At the core of a rights-based approach is the idea that people can claim respect of all human rights from their governments. In that sense, human rights create entitlements of persons vis-а-vis their governments. These entitlements can be legally claimed and are therefore a good tool to hold governments accountable.

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