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The Right to Food

Dave Hoffman

Dave Hoffman is the Murray Shusterman Professor of Transactional and Business Law at Temple Law School. He specializes in law and psychology, contracts, and quantitative analysis of civil procedure. He currently teaches contracts, civil procedure, corporations, and law and economics.

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6 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Universal liberty rights emerged from a natural rights (better: natural law) tradition, so it is not surprising that an endeavor to establish social and economic rights would want to ground itself in this same tradition. What’s wrong with that? The difficulty, as you imply, lies elsewhere. Of course the problem with these latter rights, as Onora O’Neill has patiently and sympathetically pointed out (and one reason they’re not internationally justiciable), is that rights-holders cannot specifically identify obligation-bearers: “Unless obligation-bearers are identifiable by right-holders, claims to have rights amounts only to rhetoric: nothing can be claimed, waived or enforced if it is indeterminate where the claim should be lodged, for whom it may be waived or on whom it could be enforced. [....]

    [U]niversal rights to goods and services, such as welfare rights, are in fact unlike liberty rights. It is true that rights of both sorts need institutional structures for their *enforcement,* but liberty rights do not need institutional structures to be claimable and waivable. By contrast, rights to goods and services can be claimed or waived *only* if a system of assigning agents to recipients has already been established, by which the counterpart obligations are ‘distributed.’ [....] Some advocates of universal economic, social and cultural rights go no further than to emphasize that they *can* be institutionalized, which is true. But the point of the difference is that they *must* be institutionalized: if they are not there is no right.”

    As for the rhetoric of such rights: “Proclamations of universal ‘rights’ to goods or services without attention to the need to justify and establish institutions that identify corresponding obligation-bearers may seem bitter mockery to the poor and needy, for whom these rights matter most. When advocates of Human Rights proclaim universal rights to food or to work or to welfare, yet fail to show who has corresponding obligations, or where claims of right or redress may be lodged, they hurl a weapon that may boomerang. *At best* a premature rhetoric of rights *may* have political point and impact. An appeal to the ‘manifesto rights’ of the sort promulgated in Charters and Declarations invokes and highlights ideals that *may* guide agitation, politics and legislation in a quest for institutionalized, claimable rights. The resonating ideal of Human Rights, as formerly the Rights of Man, *may* galvanize people who once conceived of themselves as mere subjects, entitled only to petition the powers that be for relief from their miseries. They *may* come to conceive of themselves as citizens, or as citizens-to-be, who can insist that justice is violated and claim what is owed to them. But *at worst* a premature rhetoric of rights can inflate expectations while masking a lack of claimable entitlements.” From her book, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (1996).

    As to the possible philosophical grounding and moral justification of such rights, please see, for example, Martha C. Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006), and Simon Caney’s Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory (2005). And as to the relevance of international law to all of this, a good start would be Allen Buchanan’s Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations of International Law (2004).

  2. Frank says:

    I know it’s a bit off topic, but readers interested in food security might want to check out this show on Open Source Radio on the recent decision by certain members of Congress to try to live off the standard allotment of $21 per week for food stamps:

    http://www.radioopensource.org/taking-the-food-stamp-challenge/

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Frank’s reference to “food security” has inspired me to encourage readers interested in this topic to familiarize themselves with the following indispensable titles:

    Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

    Dreze, Jean, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger: Selected Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

    Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Frank’s reference to “food security” has inspired me to encourage readers interested in this topic to familiarize themselves with the following indispensable titles:

    Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

    Dreze, Jean, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger: Selected Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

    Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  5. Lidija Knuth, Legal Consultant says:

    We are happy to have triggered your interest in the right to food with the presentation on “The Human Right to Food” at FAO last Monday.

    The following literature recommendations may be helpful for your research on the implementation, justiciability and development of the right to food and related issues:

    Alston, Philip and Tomaševski, Katarina, eds., The Right to Food, Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984

    W.B. Eide and U. Kracht (eds), Food and Human Rights in Development, Volume I, 2005 and Volume II, 2007

    FAO, The Right to Food Guidelines available at http://www.fao.org/docs/eims/upload/214344/RtFG_Eng_draft_03.pdf

    We highly recommend visiting the website of the Right to Food Unit of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) at http://www.fao.org/righttofood/portal_en.htm. The website provides access to information, knowledge and training materials about the implementation of the right to food and the application of the Right to Food Guidelines. On the website you can find a virtual library that may be particularly helpful for further research on the topic.

  6. George Kent says:

    As a specialist in the right to food, I appreciate the interest shown by Dave Hoffman and his students on the issue. I would like to offer a few comments.

    I agree that as a practical matter the right to food is not presently internationally justiciable. But that is true of most human rights. The primary responsibility for assuring the realization of human rights is with nation-states, not with the global community. Thus it is quite sensible that advocates for the right to food should focus initially on national implementation.

    David, you say that the ICESCR “is an awfully thin reed to found a political program as vast as the right to food.” Yes, it would be if article 11 of ICESCR was out there all by itself. However, there are elements in several other major human rights agreements that support this position, such as the assertion of the right to life. More importantly, the impulse for pushing for the recognition and realization of the right to food derives not so much from a few words in international legal documents, but from the deep worldwide consensus on the need to address the hunger problem as a moral imperative. The words would have little significance in the absence of that fundamental moral understanding.

    Why not similarly push for the right to clothing? Maybe the food issue seems more urgent? Note that in article 11, which you quoted, the main right is to an adequate standard of living. This means a standard that at least allows people to live in dignity. Food, clothing, and housing are listed as elements that are important in that broader concept. Any of them could be used as a point of entry to dealing with the broader requirement of an adequate standard of living.

    While article 11 in itself says little about the right to food, you can find a much fuller, authoritative interpretation of the meaning of the right in General Comment 12, prepared in 1999 by the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. See:

    http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/MasterFrameView/3d02758c707031d58025677f003b73b9?Opendocument

    I would like to also offer some thoughts on some of the comments that have come in.

    One comment points out that a major obstacle to justiciability at the international level is the lack of clarity in identification of the obligation bearers. I agree. The remedy then is to formulate new law that clearly identifies the obligation bearers and their obligations.

    Another claims, “liberty rights do not need institutional structures to be claimable and waivable.” I simply disagree. All rights require sound institutional mechanisms to make them claimable.

    Another says that “Proclamations of universal ‘rights’ to goods or services without attention to the need to justify and establish institutions that identify corresponding obligation-bearers may seem bitter mockery to the poor and needy . . .” Sure. We’re working on it. Active attention to the right to food has been underway for only about a decade, or two at the most. No one I know who is involved with right to food work is satisfied with merely proclaiming the right.

    To learn more, have a look at my book, Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, published in 2005 (http://press.georgetown.edu/detail.html?id=1589010566) Later this year, my edited book on Global Obligations for the Right to Food is scheduled to be published by Rowman & Littlefield. And if any of your students are interested, I regularly offer an online course on the right to food.

    Aloha, George Kent