Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Right to Food and Development

By Otto Spijkers

I don't think many people object to the idea that all individuals are equally deserving of an opportunity to secure a decent standard of living for themselves and their family. Unfortunately, due to facts beyond their control, many people do not have these opportunities: no matter how hard they may try, there's no possibility for them to secure an adequate standard of living. International human rights law can change this unfortunate gap between what is and ought to be, primarily by giving individuals a claim-right and others a corresponding obligation.

I will discuss the human rights law related to individual development. Contrary to what many people seem to think, the human rights to development and food are maturing and may, together with the increasing recognition of the individual as having an international legal personality, lead to interesting international claim-rights in the future.

So what is this universal human right to development and food? The first document that is usually referred to is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to this non-binding Declaration, everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and this includes adequate food and other essentials (Article 25). Moreover, everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which this right can be fully realized (article 28). An international order which prevents billions of people from securing an adequate standard of living, is thus an order that violates the human rights of billions of people (this is Pogge's argument).

However, this Universal Declaration is non-binding, and thus not helpful for individuals who wish to claim something. It may be better to refer to binding international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is binding on all 149 member-states (the US is not a party). In Article 2 of this Covenant, member states undertake to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, to the maximum of available resources (which means?), with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in that Covenant. One of the rights recognized in the Covenant is the the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. In order to safeguard these rights, member-states shall take measures individually and through international co-operation to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need (Article 11). As yet, individuals cannot send complaints to an independent monitoring body when they believe their rights are violated, but this may change in the future, and then both the particular state and the international community as a whole could be held responsible (see E/CN.4/2004/44).

If individuals can ever hope to claim an opportunity to secure an adequate standard of living for themselves and their familiy, then the universal human rights to an adequate standard of living, food and human development, must be developed further. In 1986, the General Assembly adopted the (non-binding) Declaration on the Right to Development (with the US casting the only dissenting vote), which stated unambiguously that the right to development is an inalienable human right. More recently, the Millennium Declaration was unanimously adopted by the then largest-ever gathering of world leaders (189 member-states, most of them represented by heads of state and government). In the Declaration, the world community pledged to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.” In an address to the recently established Human Rights Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested that perhaps the Council’s most important task was to “make the 'right to development' clear and specific enough to be effectively enforced and upheld”. To do so, the Human Rights Council has a special Working Group on the Right to Development.

Meanwhile, as the world is exploring the exact meaning of these human rights and the ensuing responsibilities, and the obstacles and consequences that may follow the recognition of a claim-right for individuals, the US sticks to its own position: in 2002, the US Government made a reservation to a declaration on food. According to the US Government, “the attainment of the right to an adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively that does not give rise to any international obligation.” That position seems a bit oldfashioned nowadays.

The first picture is from the Center for Economic and Social Right's website, the second from the Food and Agriculture Organization's website. The final picture is taken by a friend in Geneva.