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The right to food

The role of national parliaments in combating hunger

by Mr. Olivier de Schutter United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food

Mr. Olivier de SchutterMore than 160 parliamentarians from 45 countries met in Rome in November to contribute to the outcome of the World Summit on Food Security at the invitation of the IPU and the Italian Parliament. Prof. Olivier de Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, led an intense debate with the parliamentarians. He urged them to stop being mere observers and start becoming active participants in the fight for food security. Mr. de Schutter was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in March 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent of any government or organization, and he reports to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly.

The Economics Nobel Prize laureate Amartya K. Sen is often credited for having asserted that famines do not occur in democracies. Although this is of course an oversimplification, the validity of the basic point is indisputable: the problem of hunger is not necessarily one of food availability. It is more often one of food accessibility. One billion people go hungry today. This is a record despite the fact that more than enough food is produced to feed everyone. The food price crisis of 2007-2008 occurred amid record harvests. The problem of hunger is really one of poverty and of inequality: people are hungry because they are poor, and thus cannot afford the food that is available on the markets. Accountability is therefore essential: if governments made the right choices, devised appropriate social programmes and put trade and investment policies in place, hunger could be overcome.

This is why the right to adequate food is considered as a human right. It treats hunger as a problem that is not technical, but political. It refuses to see hunger as a natural disaster: it sees it, rightly, as man-made – as the result of skewed development processes that could have been different, if they had been more carefully monitored.

Parliaments have an important role to play in improving accountability, and thus in combating hunger. First, they can favour the adoption of national strategies for the realization of the right to food. Such strategies are recommended by the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security adopted unanimously by the Member States of the FAO in 2004, and which is the only text of an intergovernmental nature that identifies the concrete measures States should take in order to comply with the human right to adequate food. Strategies for the realization of the right to food define what actions should be taken, by which actors, within a precise timeframe, and according to specific process. They serve to ensure that the appropriate resources will be mobilized. They seek to improve coordination across different branches of government, ensuring that the many interrelated causes of hunger or malnutrition are addressed. They also enhance accountability: by assigning role players and defining responsibilities, they allow civil society organizations, national human rights institutions or courts – or indeed, parliaments – to better scrutinize the conduct of various State agencies. Because such strategies are participatory and inclusive, they contribute to democratization and empowerment – particularly when they are institutionalized into framework laws, as they are in Brazil, Guatemala and Nicaragua. They therefore limit the risk of arbitrariness or favoritism in decision-making, and they ensure that the decisions are made in the light of the real needs, as expressed by the ultimate beneficiaries.

Second, parliaments have a role to play in analyzing budgets. It is their responsibility, for instance, to ensure that agricultural development receives the priority it deserves in public budgets. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Right to Food Unit published a brochure in 2009 called “Budget work to advance the right to food”, laying out concretely what should be done to ensure that good intentions translate into reality. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States must progressively realize the right to food “to the maximum of available resources”; they must raise the money they need, and they must spend the money they raise, with a focus on the needs of the most vulnerable segments of the population.

Third, parliaments should exercise their function as watchdogs of government action. Too often, support schemes to farmers do not reach the most marginal farmers living on the most arid land, away from communication routes. Social programmes or food aid programmes have their own problems. In the absence of targeting, they sometimes benefit primarily the well-connected, the best informed, or those living in the urban centres. But when targeting is introduced, it may not be based on an adequate mapping of food insecurity; it may result in the imposition of bureaucratic hurdles, particularly difficult to overcome for the poor and the illiterate; and it may raise administrative costs and the risks of corruption.

“If all you have is a hammer, then all problems look like nails”, Mark Twain once wrote. If all you have is technology, hunger looks like a technical problem, one that agronomists and economists should deal with. But parliaments provide us with other tools that have to do with governance, accountability and empowerment. By setting up the appropriate legal and institutional framework, by allocating appropriate budgets, and by monitoring government action, they can improve lives and, in time, eradicate hunger decisively.

For more information on the work of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, visit: www.srfood.org or www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/index.htm.

The right to inform

Legislators are not the only ones in danger when they perform their function of informing citizens. According to the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), more than 110 journalists were killed since January 2009. Freedom of expression and the right to information are key to democracy, according to the IPU, which adopted a resolution on these themes at its 120th IPU Assembly held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in April 2009.

The IPU resolution encourages those parliaments that have not already done so to enact freedom of information legislation at the earliest opportunity, to pass laws that ensure respect for intellectual pluralism and to adopt the legislative measures needed to criminalize the dissemination or transmission of child pornography through any medium.

The resolution condemns the restrictions, violence and assassination suffered by legislators. It urges parliaments to take legislative action to protect journalists and other opinion-shapers in exercising their right to freedom of expression.

While recognizing that freedom of expression and access to information may need to be restricted in the event of a war or serious public security threat, the resolution stresses that such restrictions ought to be strictly limited in scope and duration. It expresses concern that the concentration of media ownership will ultimately marginalize the right to express unconventional views and invites parliaments to pass laws guaranteeing media plurality, which is essential to freedom of expression, and to combat arbitrary sanctions by the State on the media, press agencies and correspondents.