The right to food for all: a right-based approach to hunger and social inequality.

Author:Kong, Karen
  1. INTRODUCTION A. Poverty Amidst Plenty II. SOCIAL INEQUALITY AND HUNGER A. Horizontal Stratification of Society: Caste B. Vertical Stratification of Society: Gender III. THE RIGHT TO FOOD A. Development of the Right to Food B. Legal Content of the Right to Food 1. Freedom from Hunger 2. The Meaning of Adequate Food 3. The Obligations of States a. Obligation to Respect b. Obligation to Protect c. Obligation to Fulfill 4. Implementation of the Right to Food and the Duty of Non-discrimination C. Progressive Realization D. Relationship Between the Right to Food and Other Human Rights IV. THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY IN INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW A. Different Conceptions of Equality in Human Rights B. Traditional Conceptions of Equality 1. Formal Equality 2. Identical Treatment Combined with Special Treatment C. Broader Conception of Equality 1. Equality as Participation D. Participation in Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom 1. Participation of Women V. EQUALITY AND THE RIGHT TO FOOD A. Traditional Conceptions of Equality in the Right To Food 1. ICESCR 2. General Comment No. 12 3. The Right To Food Case in the Supreme Court in India B. Broader Conception of Equality in the Right To Food VI. SEX DISCRIMINATION AND THE RIGHT TO FOOD A. International Human Rights Law on Women and the Right to Food 1. Traditional Conception of Equality 2. Broader Conception of Equality VII. CASTE DISCRIMINATION AND THE RIGHT TO FOOD A. International Human Rights Law on Caste Discrimination and the Right to Food VIII. THE RIGHT TO DEVELOPMENT AND THE RIGHT TO FOOD A. The Right to Development B. Linkages Between the Right to Food and the Right to Development 1. Participation 2. Equality of Opportunity C. The Right to Development, Sen's Development as Freedom and the Right to Food IX. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    1. Poverty Amidst Plenty

    Despite the fact that the world today has produced enough food for every person to lead productive and healthy lives, starvation and malnutrition are still life threatening issues facing many people. (1) Traditionally we battled against hunger by the use of technology and science to increase agricultural production, by food aid to the people who suffer from famine and starvation, and by birth control as a long term reduction of poverty and hunger. In international human rights law, the recognition of the right to food as a distinguished social, economic and cultural right is an additional effort to achieve food security through the use of a right-based approach. (2) Accountability and obligations by states replace political wills and preferences. Non-discrimination and equality are central to the right-based approach.

    Unfortunately, the recognition of the right to food by the international community does not seem to bring forth very encouraging signs of moving towards the goal of food security. Internationally, ten years after the World Food Summit 1996 in which the right to food was expressly recognized, the report of the Food and Agricultural Organization stated that the number of undernourished population remains exceedingly high. Since 1990-92, the baseline period for the World Food Summit Target, the number of undernourished people in developing countries has declined by only three million from 823 million to 820 million. (3) Nationally, not many states have recognized the right to adequate food by incorporating it into domestic legislation. India was one of the few countries which recognized the right to food in its constitution. In 2001, a non-governmental organization in Rajasthan filed a lawsuit, petitioning against all state governments of India for the violation of the right to food. (4) The Supreme Court of India recognized the right to food as derived from the Constitution of India and issued interim orders to state governments to implement food security programs. Yet, the effectiveness of the implementation of the food security programs to the poor and hungry following the recognition of the right to food has been disappointing. The reports by the Supreme Court's appointed Commissioner showed that the results of implementation of court interim orders fell short of the realization of the right to food in India.

    The Indian failures raise two larger questions about the right to food. Why does the right to food seem to be ineffective in tackling the problem of food insecurity? What is the reason for the gap between legal entitlement and reality? The first possibility concerns the enforcement mechanism of the right to food: monitoring system, access to justice and availability of resources. The second concerns the formulation of the right to food itself. It is the second limb that will be the focus of this paper.

    The formulation of the right to food must be framed in such a way as to tackle the cause of hunger and to oblige states to take steps to cure this cause and to refrain from taking steps that will aggravate hunger. In India, the reason for hunger amidst plenty lies in the social and economic inequality within the country. The disparity in the distribution of food and economic resources within the country is not merely a matter of income inequality based on social class. It is linked more fundamentally to the inherent inequality established by the traditional and cultural stratification in the Indian society. Social division in India based on caste and gender causes resources and control to be concentrated on the more advantaged strata of the society. People in the lower strata of the social structure are denied access to resources, and face obstacles in the free movement between social strata or the channeling of resources or power from one to another. Poverty and hunger result from the unequal distribution of opportunities and rights, and states are no doubt responsible for circumstances that cause hunger. In such a case, to eliminate hunger and to realize food security, the inequality which blocked the free flow of resources has to be broken.

    The idea of social inequality as the real obstacle to food security sparks the quest of studying the right to food from an equality perspective. The question is: to what extent does the present formulation of the right to food adequately address the problem of social inequality as the root cause of intra-state inequality in the distribution of food leading to the problem of poverty amidst plenty? How could the reconceptualization of the right to food through mainstreaming equality help to address the inadequacy of the law?

    My main argument is that social stratification blocks the equal and free distribution of economic and social resources and the means to access the food. This social stratification is caused by inequality and discrimination, e.g. gender, caste, and inequality of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, and urban bias. Such social cause is not fully addressed by the current formulation of the right to food that merely facilitates the access to resources, piecemeal identification of vulnerable groups, and merely focuses on the economic side of the problem--hunger is a social problem. The right to food should serve to break the wall of inequality through: mainstreaming equality in its formulation, drawing international human rights obligations that promote gender and race equality, and reconceptualizing equality using the notions of participation and empowerment of the disadvantaged. This serves to balance the power between advantaged and disadvantaged groups and to remove the social inequality. Only through this comprehensive formulation of the right to food can food security be progressively realized.

    This article will not look at the dimension of international trade and inter-state distribution of hunger but will focus on hunger as a socio-economic problem within each state. India will be the country in focus. This article will start by looking at the cause of hunger as a problem of social inequality. To determine to what extent the right to food can achieve food security by breaking the wall of inequality, I will trace the history, development, and study the content of the right to food. Having recognized that the current formulation of the right to food fails to focus on equality and that the content of the right to food needs to be expanded by mainstreaming equality, I will look at different conceptions of equality in international human rights law. The following section will reconceptualize the right to food from the perspective of equality as participation and empowerment, and will draw on international human rights law on gender and race equality to supplement the content of the right to food. In the last section, I will look at how the understanding of the right to food based on equality as participation is further reinforced by the content of the right to development.


    The problem of poverty amidst plenty makes us ask: what causes the inequality and what inhibits the free access to food and economic resources available in a society? From a sociological perspective, a society is characterized by different patterns and dimensions of inequality--wealth, income, gender, race, education and occupation. Social stratification is the term used to describe the structure of social inequality in which unequal distribution of goods and services, rights and obligations, powers and prestige are studied. (5) Karl Marx analyzed society based on working class and capitalists. Weber understood social inequality as based on class and/or status. Class distinction is usually between property owners and nonproperty owners. Status groups distinguish themselves according to social honor and degrees of prestige.

    Income inequality, resulting in unequal distribution of resources, is common to all societies. According to Davis and Moore, income inequality could be seen as virtuous and essential because it leads to the division of labor within different sectors of the society. (6)...

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