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Solutions outside the Box: Can We Finally Implement the Human Right to Food

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Simon Maxwell -Director, Overseas Development Institute

1. Simon Maxwell introduced his paper on the right to food  with a brief summary of topics raised during previous meetings in the series. He identified ten topics that had been discussed: (i) were economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights legitimate? (ii) were they as important as civil and political rights? (iii) was there a hierarchy of individual and collective rights? (iv) were ESC rights aspirational or practical? (v) how did ESC rights relate to the international development targets? (vi) did a rights-based approach mean advocacy or justiciability? (vii) was progressive realisation meaningful? morally defensible? (viii) what was the role of international duty bearers? (ix) what mechanisms existed for international accountability? (x) were rights given or seized?

2. No definitive answers had been reached to these questions, but Simon Maxwell presented a set of five ‘axioms’, as a basis for discussion. These were:

  1. ESC rights are legitimate;
  2. legitimacy implies justiciability;
  3. justiciability requires standards;
  4. standards imply accountability;
  5. accountability encompasses international duty bearers.

3. The human right to food had generated a very large amount of activity, from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, through the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and other legal instruments. There had been recognition of the right in international declarations (most recently the World Food Summit) and a great deal of thinking had been undertaken on how to operationalise the right. A code of conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food had been endorsed by FIAN (Food First Information and Action Network), and by other organisations. It had been discussed at successive meetings organised by the UN High Commission on Human Rights. Nevertheless, Simon Maxwell argued that there was still a great deal to do. In particular, and taking the five axioms as the foundation, questions around standards, justiciability, accountability, and the obligations of international duty bearers needed to be resolved. He thought that solutions did exist, but mostly in other sectors, i.e. ‘outside the box’.

4. Reviewing lessons from other sectors, Simon Maxwell looked successively at: (i) the international development targets; (ii) partnership in development; (iii) accountability in public services; (iv) codes of conduct in different fields; and (v) ombudsman proposals. He noted that some of the most progressive thinking on these topics related to the situation in northern countries, and called for greater communication between north and south.

5. In terms of substance, four conclusions could be suggested. First, international targets had great political value, and could assist in the better use of resources, but they were not the same as rights. There are lessons to learn, however, about the difficulty of establishing universal international targets. For example, poverty reduction is probably best carried out within a framework of locally generated, culturally specific targets (e.g. on the meaning and measurement of poverty). The same could be argued for the precise performance standards in the rights arena.

6. Secondly, it is clear that the achievement of social rights required public service accountability – and that meant a procedure for enforcement. The UK debate about the Citizens’ Charter had greatly assisted in defining standards, and also procedures for recourse. As seen earlier in the series, some progress had been made in setting standards in the rights field (e.g. the Sphere project). However, the enforcement or recourse procedures were not yet in place.

7. Third, empowering beneficiaries meant giving them ‘voice’ – and probably also exit strategies. There had been a great deal of discussion on the Citizens’ Charter/public service debate in the UK about the need for beneficiary involvement and participation, and about developing systems so that citizens had choices about where to secure services. Similar principles had been developed in some NGO work in development, particularly on participation, for example in the Red Cross Code of Conduct for NGOs working in relief.

8. Finally, partnership could help with burden-sharing – but requires reciprocal accountability. The current vocabulary of partnership offers a template for burden-sharing between rich and poor countries, based on some kind of contractual arrangement.

9. Applying these principles to the right to food, Simon Maxwell introduced his own charter for food security, specifying guarantees citizens could expect from the state. He did not necessarily want to defend the precise wording, but the principle of performance standard setting and accountability was important. It was clear that having a charter would provide a firm basis for burden-sharing between rich and poor countries.

10. The discussion covered a number of topics:

  1. Some participants still doubted the value of a rights-based approach to development. One participant, for example, suggested that references to economic, social and cultural rights were better placed in the preamble to a constitution, rather than in the main text. This way, justiciability could be avoided.
  2. Some other participants accepted the principle of economic, social and cultural rights, but felt that codes of conduct or other devices to secure implementation could only work when there was widespread agreement that the standards were right, and when resources were available. In the case of food, since it was generally plentiful on a world scale, a doubt was raised about whether the kinds of standards listed in the charter for food security were necessary.
  3. Turning to those standards, there was some discussion about whether certain topics should or should not be included. Some felt there was not enough attention to ‘food sovereignty’, or to the wishes of poor people themselves. Others raised questions about items related to food inputs, or suggested the inclusion of new items on land reform and other topics. There was also some debate about the role of the state as guarantor of last resort.
  4. More generally, a number of participants made the point that standards could only be set in full consultation with potential beneficiaries. It was important to democratise the debate about economic, social and cultural rights. For this reason, monitoring, information and dissemination were important tools.
  5. Finally, on international burden-sharing, the importance of a genuine partnership was emphasised, with mutual accountability at the heart of the relationship.


In this event, Simon Maxwell introduced his paper on the right to food and identified ten topics that had been discussed in previous meetings in this series.