The idea of universal human rights is a powerful one. Every person, wherever they are born and regardless of their social status, is entitled to the enjoyment of certain inalienable basic rights. Human rights are indivisible: the denial of one right affects the enjoyment of others; hence the intrinsic link between the basic rights to housing, food, and health.
These fundamental rights, as many MUNPlanet readers will know, were for the first time enshrined in the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proclaimed in Paris on the 10th of December, 1948. Australia, largely due to the outstanding efforts of Dr Herbert Evatt, was one of eight nations involved in drafting the UDHR.
The UDHR is not legally binding. It sets out basic norms and standards to which all countries are expected to adhere. It has been followed by several international legal instruments that are legally binding; in particular, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both explicitly name adequate food and housing as basic human rights. Article 11 of the ICESCR states that:
“The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”
In the modern global economy such rights are often seen as ‘barriers to trade’; and the assumption is that the food industry, via ‘normal market operations’, will provide affordable and adequate food for all. For some decades, this has been the philosophical and political position of Australian governments. However, the food industry’s role is to maximize profit and provide a service to customers, and herein lies a crucial distinction: consumer choice versus the rights of citizens.
The Role of Nation States
According to international law, all State parties to the ICESCR are obliged to ‘respect, protect and fulfill’ the rights which it establishes. While securing the full enjoyment of the universal right to food is understood to take place over time (the principle of ‘progressive realization’), Art.11, part 2, says that everyone within a State’s territory must be free from hunger now, and that a State violates this obligation unless it has insufficient resources to fulfill its duties.
The duty to respect the right to food is essentially a negative obligation: States must not do anything that would prevent citizens and residents from accessing food. For example, deliberate starvation through blockades in a time of war – as is tragically occurring in Syria right now.
The duty to protect the right to food means that States must take measures to prevent third parties, including private businesses, from doing anything that would deprive individuals from accessing affordable, adequate and appropriate food on an on-going basis. This could include the development of a ‘food desert’ through so-called ‘land-banking’ whereby households are excluded from access to healthy food outlets.
Finally, the duty to fulfill is a positive obligation, which requires states to ‘establish political, economic and social systems that provide access to the guaranteed right for all members of society’ (1). This includes ensuring the affordability and safety of culturally appropriate staple foods, the protection of resources for food production and the provision of emergency food relief. Food polices which link health and ecological-sustainability are seen as setting the international benchmark regarding the duty to fulfill the right to food.
Since 2002, the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (2) has mapped out best practice for all countries on the legal and institutional steps to fully implement the right to food. Read together with the Food and Agriculture’s Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines(3) the key steps are as follows:
·incorporating the right to food in national constitutions;
·passing enabling domestic legislation: a ‘national Right to Food framework law’;
·identifying and targeting the hungry and the poor
·conducting a thorough assessment of existing policies, institutions and laws;
·developing participatory ‘national strategies based upon the right to food’, such as national agriculture, food security and nutrition strategies;
·designing and resourcing appropriate institutions and implementing actions of a participatory nature;
·monitoring the implementation of the national strategies; and
·enforcing the right to food through judicial means where necessary
As of 2011, 23 countries had explicitly incorporated the right to food in their Constitutions, and another 33 recognised the right to food implicitly as part of broader human rights guarantees (4). A further 19 had adopted or were drafting a framework law to implement the Constitutional right to food; several had adopted national food and nutrition strategies, and established institutions charged with their oversight (4). In some countries the right to food has been legally enforced through the courts, providing citizens an opportunity to hold their governments to account.
Human Rights in Australia
Australia is not amongst any of these countries. Australia, at the Federal level, does not have a Bill of Rights, or a Human Rights Act. As noted, Australian governments take the view that economic and social rights should be satisfied by individuals selling their labour in the marketplace, and buying access to food and housing. This is essentially a neoliberal model of rights and obligations, according to which basic necessities are regarded as commodities, and access to them can be achieved by a successfully performing economy.
Following the ‘golden era’ of post-war growth from 1950-1975, times have changed drastically; and increasing numbers of Australians are living precariously, either in or on the edge of both food insecurity and homelessness. Now there is a new group of food insecure: the working poor, those who are massively over mortgaged and who survive from pay check to pay check. From research we know that such groups cut down on healthy food in the family budget as it can be squeezed, unlike other fixed items of household expenditure.
In a wealthy country like Australia, this situation has structural roots in the ongoing dismantling of the welfare safety net, the increase in low-paid and precarious employment, and the associated steep rise in income poverty and income inequality. Fundamentally, as Silvasti and Riches conclude following their survey of the alarming rise in food insecurity in rich countries in the past 30 years: “…an end to hunger [and homelessness] requires living wages, adequate benefits and full employment” (5).
All countries must make periodic reports to the United Nations on their progress to meeting their human rights obligations. As regards to the right to food, Australia’s most recent report in 2006, contained a single brief paragraph on the development of Eat Well Australia, a public health nutrition plan (6). Meanwhile, non-government organisations have provided shadow reports to the UN detailing Australia’s government’s failure to tackle food insecurity and fulfil basic food rights (7).
A health education approach to structural problems within the food system ignores agriculture, processing, marketing and retail. A truly comprehensive food policy would address the rights of farmers as the primary producers of the nation’s food supply, and ensure that the food produced was linked to a national nutrition strategy. Yet both the National Food Plan (2013) and the current Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper fail to make any such connections, focusing largely (NFP) or entirely (ACWP) on increasing the production of food as commodities for profit and export.
Improving Food Rights
As a rich country that exports two-thirds of the food we produce, and will spend $1 trillion on military forces over the next two decades, the notion that we ‘don’t have the financial means’ to eradicate hunger and homelessness is absurd.
Arguments abound over food waste and the way that this can be used to feed the ‘hungry’, but within a rights framework this ignores the issues of adequate, appropriate and healthy food; and citizens’ rights to access food in a dignified manner (7). The provision of food through charity and left-overs from a dysfunctional food system does not equate to fulfilling the right to food for all people in Australia.
How we raise taxes, and how we spend them, as well as how we offer emergency relief, are questions of political will; and the resulting ‘solutions’, say a great deal about the nature of our basic values, the level of understanding about the devastating consequences of inequality in Australia, and our level of compassion as a people.
The good news is that many conscientious individuals, organisations and institutions do take our obligations seriously, and are seeking to improve human rights in Australia.
·At the local governmental level, many Councils are taking the lead by the participatory development and implementation of holistic food system policies. Many of these explicitly acknowledge the human right to adequate food, and the Council’s responsibility to do what it can to guarantee this right. These activities build on years of grassroots work, which is now leading to the participatory development of multi-functional community food hubs, which can transform the model of food charity to one of empowerment and focus on systemic causes of disadvantage.
·Non-government organisations have persistently raised awareness about welfare, social and health injustices, urged for accountability and brokered partnerships for improved services for vulnerable Australians. Human rights principles, such as participation and non-discrimination, does and should continue to influence this work.
·National networks such as the Right to Food Coalition and Sustain: The Australian Food Network, are bringing together research and practice partnerships to shine attention on this issue in a sustained way. Shadow reporting to the UN and inviting the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to visit Australia, may offer an under-utilized opportunity to tackle homelessness and food insecurity. In doing this it is important to provide a voice and platform for marginalised and hidden groups. It is not enough for advocates to talk on their behalf.
The human right to food, and the precedents for its successful implementation in dozens of countries around the world, is a powerful means by which to achieve the goal of a truly fair and just Australia, in which everyone is well housed and everyone enjoys nourishing food, every day. It’s up to us to make this a reality. We can begin by reflecting human rights in how we deliver services, set policies and hold Australian governments to account.
*This article was originally co-authored by Rebecca Lindberg, Nick Rose and Martin Caraher. It originally appeared in the Council to Homeless Person’s Magazine, Parity, Melbourne, Australia: April, 2016. It was re-formatted and appears on the MUNPlanet blog with permission from the authors.
Cover Image: Australia day fruit flag, Pinterest
How do you see the right to food and its position in the framework of universal human rights? What are the key challenges to a wider and sustainable application of this right in as many countries as possible?