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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 42
November 3, 2007

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Human Rights Analysis

Right to food: Development in international law

Qumrunnessa Nazly

RIGHT to food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfilment of other human rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. The right to food is not a subject matter of charity or kindness of others. It is the right to feed oneself with dignity, rather than the right to be fed. The realization of this basic human need is inseparable from social justice, requiring the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies, at both the national and international levels, oriented to the eradication of poverty and the fulfilment of all human rights for all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 first recognized the right to food as human right. In article 25 of UDHR, it is said that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Later on, International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR), 1966 also recognizes the right to food as follows- the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions (Article 11 of the ICESCR).

The understanding of the right has been interpreted by General Comment no 12 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the body in charge of monitoring the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in those states which are party to it). In the General Comment, the committee interprets the right to food as- the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food has adopted his own definition of right to food which is in line with the core elements of the right to food as defined by General Comment No. 12.For the Special Rapporteur the right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.

State obligations towards the realisation of the right to food
States have the primary duty to uphold this fundamental human right of its citizens. According to article 2 of ICESCR, the state parties to the covenant are under obligations to take steps to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of the right of every person to adequate food without discrimination of any kind.

The General Comment 12 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(CESCR) interprets the state obligations as follows- The right to adequate food, like any other human right, imposes three types or levels of obligations on States parties: the obligations to respect, to protect and to fulfill. In turn, the obligation to fulfill incorporates both an obligation to facilitate and an obligation to provide. The obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires States parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access. The obligation to protect requires measures by the State to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food. The obligation to fulfill (facilitate) means the State must pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people's access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security. Finally, whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters.

In 1996 World food Summit, the world leaders committed to cut the number of hungry and malnourished by half by 2015. The Millennium Declaration also sets agenda for hunger reduction.

Besides all these international promises, this fundamental human right is also recognized by numerous national constitutions in different forms. Various measures are also being taken by the states towards the realisation of this fundamental human right. There are also successful cases in the courts around the world where the right to food or some aspects of it, have been upheld and enforced.

Despite all these developments, mostly bookish, the reality is that even in the present world 854 million people live in extreme hunger. Still today many people die on a daily basis from starvation. Malnourishment also heightens vulnerability to other illness and almost always has serious physical and mental effects- the lack of brain cell development, inadequate growth. The FAO's report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004, reports that hunger has increased to 852 million gravely undernourished children, women, and men, compared to 842 million last year, despite already warning in 2003 of a 'setback in the war against hunger'.

In the message of United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), Ban Ki moon on the world food day 2007, UNSG said, 'The world has the resources, the knowledge, and the tools to make the right to food a reality for all'. Then, what is lacking?

The author is working with Ain O Shalish Kendra.


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