The right to food

Angela Wong, Researcher,
Asian Legal Resource Centre

On 7 July 2002, 3 out of 5 displaced villagers who were gathering mushrooms in the forest were shot dead by a patrol of SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] troops in the forest 4-5 miles west of Lai-Kha town [Shan State, Burma].

The said 5 villagers were originally from Nawng Mai village in Wan Saang village tract, Lai-Kha township, which had been forcibly relocated to the outskirts of Lai-Kha town in 1996 by the then SLORC [State Law and Order Restoration Council] troops.

On the day of the incident, the villagers went together to gather mushrooms in the forest west of Lai-Kha town. When they were roaming around in the forest, a group of SPDC soldiers appeared from somewhere and called out to them to come to them.

Some of the villagers ran as they heard the soldiers, but 2 of them, Naang Seng Hurng (not her real name) and Lung Taan Lu (not his real name), were so close to the soldiers that they dared not move. The SPDC troops shot at those who ran, killing all of them, although some did not die immediately. The commander of the troops said to Lung Taan Lu and Naan Seng, “They must be Shan rebels, that was why they ran away from us”. Lung Taan Lu then said to the commander, “Had they known it was you ‘Bo Gyi’ (Commander), they would not have run. They might have thought you were Shan rebels so they ran, because our community leaders always warned us to keep away from them to avoid being kidnapped or forced to join them. That was why they had tried to run”. When the SPDC troops heard that, they let Lung Taan Lu and Naang Seng go, warning them not to tell anyone about the incident, but to say they heard shots of gunfire and ran back to their village. The troops also threatened to come and kill them if they told people that it was SPDC soldiers who shot those villagers dead.

?A report from the Shan Human Rights Foundation illustrating one of the many cases in which the military government of Burma terrorizes and disrupts civilians from their daily way of life, causing widespread hunger. [1]

How many people in the world are going hungry today? Estimates vary enormously, from 460 million to 1.1 billion. [2] Irrespective, it is widely recognized that there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. So the question arises, why are people hungry?

Once, Malthus’ ‘lifeboat theory’ had it that the population of the world would inevitably exceed the planet’s ability to provide enough food, excluding the effects of war and other disasters. This idea has now been debunked, [3] but hunger has up to now still often been attributed primarily to inadequate food production, and famines due to natural occurrences, such as floods, storms and droughts. By this understanding, hunger is just a case of bad luck: a temporary, natural, unfortunate occurrence, which can generally be addressed by food aid.

Amartya Sen, however, has shown that “there is no fixed relation between food and famine”. [4] Sen has studied, among others, the Irish famine of the 1840s, when food was still being exported from famine-stricken areas to England, due to its larger purchasing power. This example illustrates that famines are not caused simply by a decline in the supply of food in a given area; economic factors also play a role. Sen writes:

A famine develops when a sizeable number of people— who often belong to a particular occupation group— lose the economic means of acquiring food. This can result from unemployment, or from a sharp drop in earnings compared with food prices, even when there is no fall in food output or supply. [5] Famines, in fact, are a social phenomenon. [6]The way in which a society is organized affects the intensity and impact of famine, or potential famine.

Sen considers ideological, political and cultural reasons to be primarily responsible for famine. [7] He points out that economic destitution, political subservience and cultural denigration invariably cause hunger, suggesting that the victims are typically the most vulnerable— people who are already extremely poor and subject to various forms of discrimination.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food has defined it as

“the right to have regular, permanent and free 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 ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.” [9]

The right to food is closely related to the concept of ‘food security’. [10] The latter describes a situation in which the right to food has been realized, while the former embodies a legal obligation to this end.

The right to food is upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. [11] States who are partiesthe right to food. For Henry Shue this means that states have to the Covenant have the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill

1. Duties not to eliminate a person’s only available means of sub-sistence— duties to avoid depriving.

2. Duties to protect people against deprivation of the only avail-able means of subsistence by other people— duties to protect from deprivation

3. Duties to provide for the subsistence of those unable to provide for their own— duties to aid the deprived. [12]

Objections to the justicability of these duties have been raised on the spurious grounds that economic, social and cultural rights are not enforceable in the same manner as civil and political rights. However, human rights are both universal and indivisible. Without adequate food, for instance, the victims of human rights violations may be too physically, emotionally and mentally distracted to be able to exercise their civil and political rights. Conversely, when civil and political rights are violated, attempts at redress for violations of economic, social and cultural rights will also prove futile.

On the indivisibility of rights, Sen argues that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press”. [13] There is a clear and unequivocal link between type of governance and famine. When governments respect civil and political rights, people may also voice their concerns and hold leaders accountable for their policies, including those affecting economic, social and cultural rights.

Another objection to the enforceability of the right to food is the distinction between negative and positive obligations. Negative obligations require inaction, and necessarily require few resources— states simply need to avoid infringing on these rights. [14] Civil and political rights have typically been seen in these terms. By contrast, economic, social and cultural rights are understood to be positive obligations, requiring many resources that states may not have available. However, this objection is of less importance when the basic concepts of human rights are understood. Asbjorn Eide writes:

The structure of international society may be such that there are severe limitations for some states in the possibility fully to comply with human rights. This will not be a justification for violating basic integrity rights of the individual, but it may be a reasonable justification for incomplete fulfillment of other rights. [15] Regardless of a state’s ability to fulfill certain human rights, states shall not actively violate basic rights, including that to food.

Under what circumstances is this likely to happen? Interestingly, one possible scenario is when a country is ‘developing’. A large-scale shift to cash crops, for instance, is aimed primarily at speeding up economic growth and competing in the global economy, not feeding the hungry. Examining policy on export-orientated industries versus policy geared towards domestic food production, Kumar Rupesinghe finds that, “Cash-crop food production for exports would divert resources away from domestic food production and destroy ecological systems.” [16] Increased cash cropping, then, sometimes results in lower levels of food consumption, particularly if export-orientated.

As the anecdotal introduction to this article suggests, however, armed conflict is perhaps the greatest direct threat to the right to food. The Special Rapporteur, in noting that some of the worst violations of this right have occurred at the hands of armies, has added that, “Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited in both international and non-international armed conflict”. [17] The use of food as a weapon of warfare not only violates humanitarian law; it violates the most basic of human rights.

Governments can prevent famines. They are responsible to not actively violate their people’s economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to food. The international community too, must not do anything that will restrict this right, and is obliged to condemn states that do so.


End Notes

1 Shan Human Rights Foundation, ‘SHRF monthly report— October 2002’, [ ](3 May 2003).

2 Food and Agricultural Organization and World Bank, respectively. From Asbjorn Eide, Wenche Barth Eide, Susantha Goonatilake, Joan Gussow & Omawale, ‘Introduction: The food problematique’, Food as a human right, United Nations University, 1984.

3 Eide et al, ‘Introduction’, pp. v-xi.

4 Amartya Sen, ‘Nobody need starve’, Granta, no. 52, 1995, p. 216.

5 Sen, ‘Nobody need starve’, p. 215.

6 Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen, Hunger and public action, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 46.

7 Sen, ‘Nobody need starve’.

8 Sen, ‘Nobody need starve’, pp. 216?17.

9 Jean Ziegler, ‘Right to food: Report to the Commission on Human Rights’, E/ CN. 4/ 2002/ 58, 10 January 2002.

10 Peter N. Prove, ‘Human rights in trade and investment agreements: The legal framework of economic globalization, and the right to food’, [] (3 May 2003).

11 The People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma, Voice of the hungry nation, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong SAR, October 1999. This is expanded on by Philip Alston in ‘International law and the right to food’, in Eide et al, Food as a human right.

12 Referred to by Philip Alston in ‘International law and the right to food, ‘ in Eide et al, Food as a human right, pp. 169?70.

13 Amartya Sen, ‘Democracy as a universal value’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 10, no. 3, 1999, pp. 3?17.

14 Ziegler, ‘Right to food’.

15 Asbjorn Eide, ‘The international human rights system’, in Eide et al, Food as a human right, p. 160.

16 Kumar Rupesinghe, ‘Export orientation and the right to food: The case of Sri Lanka’s agricultural promotion zones’, in Eide et al, Food as a human right, p. 41.

17 Ziegler, ‘Right to food’.