Solution to food crisis must address inequalities – UN human rights chief

22 May 2008 – A wide-ranging approach addressing inequalities and the rights of marginalized groups is essential in tackling the current global food crisis, the top United Nations human rights official said in Geneva today.

While it is crucial to respond with humanitarian support in the short term, a medium- and longer-term plan must centre on human rights, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told a special session on the food crisis at the Human Rights Council.

“Such focus helps to analyze and confront the differing impact of the crisis on people,” she noted. “It contributes to clarify the imbalances in a society that trigger or exacerbate the food crisis.”

Mr. Arbour added that a rights-based approach will also take into account the voices of marginalized groups, along with human rights institutions, civil society organizations and others.

Such a solution could also help to defuse tensions and prevent civil unrest, as well as avert violations of civil and political rights in response to protests.

The current food emergency, she observed, was triggered by the confluence of several factors, including imbalances in supply and demand, unfair trade practices and distorted incentives and subsidies.

“Yet at its core and in its punitive effects, this crisis boils down to a lack of access to adequate food,” the High Commissioner told the Council at the start of the day-long event, adding that this access is a right protected by international law.

Not only must the impact of the crisis on marginalized people must be studied, but the root causes of such discrimination – such as exclusion from access to land, productive resources and decent work – must be eliminated, she said.

If such comprehensive action is not taken, a “domino effect” which affects other rights, including the right to health or to education, could result, Ms. Arbour cautioned.

She emphasized the key role of States, which by human rights law must resolve such situations. “States’ obligations regarding the right to food and freedom from hunger also entail the adoption of national strategies to ensure food and nutrition security for all.”

The current crisis “transcends national boundaries,” the High Commissioner said, calling for cooperation among States in addressing the problem.

In his address to the Council, Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, underscored how the crisis should not be viewed as one that is solely humanitarian or macro-economic in nature, but as one that is focused on the right to food.

“What distinguishes a natural disaster from a violation from human rights is that, in the latter situation, we are capable of moving along the chain of causation, from the situation of the malnourished of the hungry to specific acts or abstentions by duty-holders,” he said.

It is up to individual countries to outline their plans regarding the right to food, the independent expert said. “At the same time, the international community must ensure that an enabling environment is created, allowing such national strategies to flourish, and providing financial and technical assistance where needed.”

The independent expert also called for stepped-up efforts to assist the agriculture sector in developing nations, in the face of soaring input prices.

“We must feed the hungry now, but we must also prevent famines from occurring tomorrow,” he pointed out.

The Council later adopted a resolution by consensus expressing its grave concern at the worsening global crisis.

It called on States – both individually and though cooperation and assistance – and others to make every effort to ensure the realization of the right to food as an essential human rights objective.

In a related development, poor countries relying on food imports are expected to spend 40 per cent more on food this year than they did last year, according to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

According to the latest Food Outlook, this year’s food import bill for the Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDSs) is forecast to reach $169 billion this year.

FAO characterized this as a “worrying development,” noting that by the end of this year imports could cost four times as much as they did in 2000.

“Food is no longer the cheap commodity that it once was,” said the agency’s Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem, stressing that soaring food prices will likely exacerbate the food deprivation suffered by 854 million people. “We are facing the risk that the number of hungry will increase by many more millions of people.”

Although the global production outlook is favourable, this is unlikely to translate into the decline of many agriculture commodities because of the need to replenish stocks and rising utilization.

FAO predicts record cereal production this year, but tight markets will result in continued price volatility.


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