Essay:The Challenge of Rising Food Prices and Food Insecurity: What do Human Rights have to do with it?


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Based on an initial documantation by Nav Purewall (01 Sep 2008), which was based on input from Barbara Ekwall, Coordinator and Margret Vidar]], Human Rights Advisor, Right to Food Unit, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Additional contributions received with thanks from: Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; Daniel Seymour, Gender and Rights Unit, UNICEF; Asako Hattori, OHCHR; Sally-Anne Way, Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), and Claire Mahon, Research Group on the Right to Food, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

"The world can produce enough food to feed twice the entire global population. In a world overflowing with food, hunger is not inevitable. It is a violation of human rights" -- Jean Ziegler, Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

"... empowering people to secure food for themselves and for their family in a sustainable way is central to a human rights approach to the food crisis". -- Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights



The dramatic rise in world food prices has, in recent months, pushed the issues of hunger and food insecurity to the top of the international agenda. According to estimates, more than 100 million people are now urgently at risk of not having enough food to eat, in addition to the over 860 million people who are already chronically food insecure. FAO has warned of rising prices triggering food crises in 36 countries. And soaring food prices have already triggered food riots in a number of countries across Africa and Asia as people express their frustration at their growing difficulties in feeding their families.

On May 22, the Human Rights Council held a Special Session on the rising food prices situation, which highlighted the need to place the protection of human rights at the centre of analyses and responses to the challenge.

The Human Rights Council recently held a Special Session on the world food crisis. The event has been referred to as unique. How so?

The 7th Special Session of the Human Rights Council on "The negative impact on the realization of the right to food of the worsening of the world food crisis, caused inter alia by the soaring food prices" (Geneva, 22 May 2008) was unique for the following reasons:

1) It was the first ever special session of the most important international human rights body on an economic and social right, thereby sending a strong message to the international community about the equal value of all the rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

2) It was the first ever session on a thematic issue as opposed to a particular country or region, sending a clear message that human rights, while being the primary obligations of states, also impose obligations upon the international community;

3) Most importantly, the global food crisis was treated not like a natural disaster but as a threat to the right to adequate food for millions of individuals and it was recognized that all States have an obligation to act. In its resolution, the Human Rights Council:

  • Expressed grave concern at the worsening of the world food crisis, which seriously undermines the realization of the right to food for all; and
  • Called upon States, individually and through international cooperation and assistance, relevant multilateral institutions and other relevant stakeholders, to take all necessary measures to ensure the realization of the right to food as an essential human rights objective, and to consider reviewing any policy or measure which could have a negative impact on the realization of the right to food, particularly the right of everyone to be free from hunger, before instituting such a policy or measure;

The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, further outlined the implications of the right to food in his address at the Special Session.

What does a human rights approach reveal about the differential impacts of rising food prices on marginalised and vulnerable groups?

The human rights approach requires us to focus on the root causes underlying the lack of access to adequate food, as well as on the negative repercussions of the current situation on specific groups – especially those who already in marginalized or vulnerable situations. These groups include all those who are already food insecure and cannot afford to buy food at increasingly higher prices, including the poor, vulnerable women and children, minorities, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities.

Marginalized groups including the poor may spend up to 80% of their income on purchasing food so soaring food prices mean that individuals may have to forgo other basic necessities or services in order to cover the increased cost of food. In this way, other fundamental rights are also put at risk, including the right to water, housing, health, or education. For children and women in particular, there is also the problem of food substitution. Soaring food prices means that fish, meat or dairy may be substituted for cheaper foods, resulting in nutritional deficiencies which can lead to problems such as complications in pregnancies, low-birth weight children, and developmental impacts for children.

In this situation, a human rights-based approach compels us to:

  • Identify the most marginalized and vulnerable groups that do not enjoy the right to food;
  • Analyze the underlying causes of vulnerability which prevent access to food, such as exclusion from policy formulation, access to land, property or inheritance; productive and economic resources, employment; and credit and/or social safety nets;
  • Create enabling environments that support individuals in feeding themselves and their families in the long-term, as opposed to the benevolence model of food aid.

What does the human rights perspective contribute with regard to analysing and responding to the root causes of hunger and food insecurity?

And how can this perspective be worked into the response of the United Nations?

With regard to the food prices situation, a human rights based approach frames the situation so as to enable a human rights assessment of what is happening and to whom; an analysis of why it is happening; an overview of who has what obligations; and guidelines for processes that should be followed when developing plans and programmes. A human rights perspective also has implications for the ways in which we monitor and evaluate what we do both for our own accountability and to feed into future planning and programming. The following overview describes how the UN can incorporate a human rights-based approach in its response to rising food prices situation:


First, our assessment of the food crisis from a human rights perspective will mean that we need data that is disaggregated by age, sex, ethnic group and other relevant factors that may reveal patterns of discrimination and exclusion in terms of realization of the right to food. This requires an assessment which goes down to the level of household economy, identifying the number and distribution of households that are vulnerable and food insecure, as well as the ways in which food is divided within the family, taking into account, for example, differential distributions between women and men, boys and girls. Assessments should also consider mechanisms or structures in place, which influence how people, families and communities are able to respond to changing food prices. Such structures – whether social (e.g. a caste system), political or administrative (e.g. a sub-national social security system) or legal (e.g. legislation capping the price of certain basic foodstuffs) – may either enable or constrain the realization of the right to food. The definition of the key elements of the right to food are set out in the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' General Comment 12 (1999), providing a framework against which to assess the realization of the right to food in a given context. This suggests that at a minimum everyone should have physical and economic access to adequate food to meet their nutritional needs.


Second, our analysis needs to take a human rights perspective. This includes examining:

(1) structural causes and underlying dynamics which drive the current crisis and the ways in which it affects different people and groups in different ways. This requires moving beyond an understanding of the immediate determinants of hunger towards developing an understanding of the deeper political, economic and socio-cultural determinants and power relations that structure the ways in which rising food prices affect different people in different ways. This includes an analysis of national and international policies, and actions by governments or other actors, that are contributing to and exacerbating, or otherwise failing to ameliorate the impacts of the crisis. Where there are policies and actions that are contributing to, or exacerbating the crisis, efforts must be made to advocate for changes in these policies and actions. Particularly, at the national level, it is important to undertake a ‘capacity gap analysis’ of the kind described in the UN Common Learning Package on HRBA developed by the Interagency Action 2 initiative, identifying key 'duty bearers' with the responsibility and power to support realisation of the right to food, and understanding their ‘capacity gaps’ (i.e. gaps in skills, authority, resources etc).

(2) the relationship between the denial of the right to food (as a consequence of rising food prices) and other key rights: This includes both those rights that might facilitate realisation of the right to food (e.g. the provision of free healthcare as a response to the right to health might improve families' capacity both physically and financially to feed themselves) and those whose realisation might be hindered by rising food prices (e.g. the right to education might be impacted by families removing children from school to access their labour as an additional input into the household economy, or the right to health might be affected by significant changes in the nutritional content of the diet). Examining likely inter-linkages, such as the connection between the right to food and rights to water, health care, work, and housing, allows for the development of a more integrated and sustainable response.

(3) articulation of responsibilities and duties of a range of actors (duty bearers) with regard to the right to food; international legal commitments held by States following their ratification of international and regional human rights treaties provide a starting point for this element of analysis. The UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' General Comment 12 (1999) sets out the duties under the right to food – including the obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. These duties are primarily the responsibility of national governments and require governments to take positive steps to improve the situation of hunger of the people in their country, but also to refrain from policies and actions that might exacerbate hunger. There are potentially also other relevant actors, including families, communities, the private sector and other governments who have roles and responsibilities with regard to the realisation of the right to food. Given that some of the causes of the current food crisis lie outside of the control of some countries affected (e.g. policies to increase bio-fuel production, or speculation on agricultural commodities), this suggests that it could be the responsibility of the UN at international level to resolve such issues in the international framework based on the duties of all governments to respect the human right to food.


Third, our plans and programmes need to be developed from a human rights perspective. These should incorporate the human rights principles of participation, non-discrimination, transparency and accountability, as well as recognising the duties to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. Policies and programmes should include immediate assistance, though should not be limited to short-term relief, as they should address the structural causes and national and international policies that are contributing to and exacerbating the crisis. Efforts must be made to advocate for changes in these policies and actions that underlie the crisis. Programmes should seek to support, encourage and strengthen the capacity of duty bearers to respond to the duties to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food, whilst also empowering rights-holders to claim their right to food (see the UN common learning package for how to conduct a ‘capacity gap analysis’). This includes promoting and supporting the establishment of systems which go towards guaranteeing the right to food, such as social safety nets, provision of productive assets, credit and technology. It will also include examining the legal system in the broadest sense, making sure that it makes clear the entitlements for all those under a state's jurisdiction without discrimination and is aligned with states' responsibilities under the treaties to which they are party. Policies and programmes should always incorporate and clearly specify mechanisms of accountability, which should include monitoring and evaluation, but also other forms of holding duty bearers to account in meeting their duties. We need to clearly identify structures that could and should be in place to provide accountability for decision makers with regard to providing food security and realising the right to food for all. This might include courts, ombudsmen and human rights commissions. We need to support access to decision making for those affected, including in the formulation of our own response.


Finally, we need to be prepared to monitor and evaluate our contribution to the global response from a human rights perspective. How did we perform in promoting the right to food for all? Did we encourage a response which reached the most vulnerable? Did we support the strengthening of durable and sustainable systems that strengthen the guarantee of the right to food for all? In order to facilitate such monitoring and evaluation, our M&E plans need to have measures and indicators identified from the outset of our response that can be tracked as we undertake our contribution. At the same time, monitoring and evaluation should be understood to include different types of mechanisms of accountability relevant from a rights-based perspective, including providing empowering mechanisms to beneficiaries for complaints and redress if the objectives of programmes are not reached or are found to be discriminatory or inaccessible by beneficiaries.

In terms of guidance for UN practitioners, the FAO's Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security are a valuable resource. The guidelines provide a coherent set of policy recommendations and practical steps for governments, civil society and other partners and can be used by UN agencies as a framework for an integrated national food security policy. The Guidelines are available on the FAO’s right to food webpage, in addition to the Right to Food Information and Knowledge System, which provides guidance, methods and instruments to assist the implementation of the Right to Food at country level. Please also refer to the country case studies listed in the resources section below for examples of how the UN is responding at the country level.

Further readings and resources

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