The Right to Food: a human right —Ishtiaq Ahmed -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

The Right to Food: a human right —Ishtiaq Ahmed

Opposition to the Right to Food will never be expressed or formulated in a clear manner in the same way that states can categorically say yes or no to a national health insurance law. The need for food is too basic for anyone to deny its importance

As a follow-up to my article last Sunday (‘A Punjabi saying — a universal truth’, Daily Times, February 5, 2012), I wish to share some thoughts on the Right to Food. Dr Farid Malik, who from time to time sends feedback on my articles, suggested that the Right to Food should be declared an inalienable human right of the 21st century. I think this is a most appropriate suggestion. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has come out in support of it and many NGOs and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) have been supporting it for years. Jean Ziegler, who was the UN Special Rapporteur during 2000-2008 on the Right to Food, said in January 2010: “In a world overflowing with riches, it is an outrageous scandal that more than one billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition and that every year over six million children die of starvation and related causes. We must take urgent action now.”

The Right to Food is of course both a substantive as well as a symbolic right. In an immediate sense, the importance of food for just bare survival is all too familiar an experience for all of us. In a symbolic sense, the Right to Food is the recognition of the basic needs of human beings to function as human beings. Canadian philosopher Brian Orend lists five vital needs that he claims are common to all human beings. If these needs are not met at a basic level, we would not function as rational beings. These are: subsistence, security, freedom, equality, and recognition. A rational human being, as Friedrich Engels has reminded us, must eat before he can think.

The rebel sufi, Bulleh Shah (1680-1757), put this same idea in his inimitable Punjabi idiom:

“Punj rukan Islam de, te cchaiwaaN Bulleya tukk,

Je cchaiwaaN na howay te baqi jaande mukk.”

(Islam prescribes five obligations but the sixth is food,

If the sixth is absent the other five become meaningless.

*the five obligations are Tawheed or belief in God, prayers, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage.)

Indeed for people to function successfully as moral and ethical persons, it is important that society does not force upon them a constant struggle to survive. At least since the 20th century more wealth has been created than ever before and more food has been produced than ever before, but the story of famines is as old as history and continues to be a contemporary reality as well. Most often it is in Sub-Saharan Africa that famines devastate hundreds of thousands of lives. There is no rational or moral reason why this should be so.

Let me put in perspective the problems and difficulties that we are likely to encounter in the Right to Food becoming an inalienable human right. For any right to become an entitlement, it has to be given legal recognition. Moral rights, which do not enjoy legal recognition, are ordinarily not enforceable through the courts. The so-called national security paradigm on which states builds their priorities is essentially about bracing the coercive and punitive capacities and capabilities of the state. In practice it means diversion of scarce resources away from the needs of the people to purchasing arms and ammunition. Such a conspiracy of the state project must be abandoned in favour of an all-round notion of human security.

Opposition to the Right to Food will never be expressed or formulated in a clear manner in the same way that states can categorically say yes or no to a national health insurance law. The need for food is too basic for anyone to deny its importance. If that is true, then how do we explain the one billion or so human beings who suffer malnutrition? Some friends who live in the US cautioned me that hunger is not a problem only of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is to be found next to superabundance in the US. This is indeed true. Television reportages and daily news provides glimpses from time to time of crushing poverty that still exists in the US. With regard to Latin America, the situation is even worse.

The Right to Food should be put into perspective. The principal source of human rights is the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. That package includes civil, political, social and economic rights. Initially the presumption was that all the 30 rights were indivisible and therefore there was no distinction or hierarchy among them. However, such an understanding was short-lived as world politics polarised during the Cold War. The Commission on Human Rights prepared a series of legally binding treaties, the most important of which were the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The important difference between them was that ratification of the ICCPR meant immediate implementation while the ICESCR was formulated more as aspirations rather than binding commitments.

Under the ICESCR, the Right to Food is taken for granted but since it is not a legally binding instrument it does not carry the force of law. Moreover, under the UN system member states have to voluntarily choose to ratify treaties and conventions. Even after ratification states can get away with impunity from their treaty obligations by obstructing monitoring and visits of investigation teams.

Therefore, the Right to Food becoming a legal human right will not be enough although its importance cannot be denied. It would requires levels of cooperation and commitment that hitherto have never existed even when the founding of the UN heralded the idea of international and solidarity between peoples and nations. Globalisation and the concomitant free-market economy have no doubt proved effective in producing greater wealth, but if one billion people are still hungry then there is something conceptually and theoretically wrong with such a model of development.

I believe the original spirit of the UDHR, which did not make a distinction between civil and political rights on the one hand, and social, economic and cultural rights on the other, needs to be revitalised. Freedom and equality have to go hand in hand, and for individuals to enjoy both freedom and equality they have to be granted the Right to Food as an inalienable human right: not as an act of charity but a right under the law of all citizens and human beings.

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times