Human Rights to Geneva – Food Security to Rome?

By Carolin Anthes

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here. This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:

After a minor diversion last week to look at Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty, in this post, Carolin Anthes brings us back to the CFS and to the role of human rights therein, but also makes important links to the UN system more broadly.


FAO Headquarters, Rome (Credit: C. Anthes, 2016)

During the plenary discussion at the 43rd CFS, the Russian delegate stated that human rights “should be dealt with by the specialized bodies of the UN system”. In other words: Human rights should be a matter dealt with in Geneva, not in Rome. A bold statement that is symptomatic for the contested status of human rights and the right to food approach at CFS and the Rome-based UN food agencies. The current Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, also stressed at a CFS side event that the human rights approach was very much in danger these days and urged everyone “to pay more attention”.

In this post I invite you to pay attention to two interrelated, and in my view highly problematic, developments which contribute to and are at the same time an expression of the contestation of a human rights-based approach to food security and hunger reduction: 1) “forum shopping” by member states, and 2) FAO’s reluctance to mainstream human rights in its operations.

Let’s go “forum shopping”…

Russia is not alone, various member states engage in a strategic practice of “forum shopping” across different UN localities, which runs opposite to the cross-cutting integration of human rights in the UN system and especially in its development work (referred to as human rights mainstreaming). Enabled by the deeply fragmented setup of the UN system, these states are trying to refer an issue to another UN agency or forum as witnessed during the CFS plenary with the Russian statement. It negated per se that human rights have a place in Rome, thus fuelling the contestation of the right to food in Rome-based agencies.

But such practice is not at all limited to the CFS or Rome-based agencies. A multi-sited focus (which I try to embrace in my current academic research) shows clearly that Geneva – the human rights ‘hub’ of the UN system – and its processes have also been victim of member states’ attempts to engage in “forum shopping”, just the other way around.

During the first two sessions of the Human Rights Council’s working group on a new peasant rights declaration, the United States and the European Union, for example, repeated like a mantra that the Geneva human rights fora were not appropriate for discussing the issues of peasants, seeds and land, which were matters of Rome.

We witnessed a clear attempt to obstruct the further evolution of the human rights agenda towards including (collective) human rights to land, seeds etc. for particularly marginalized populations, simply by referring the substantive issue to “non-human rights” UN agencies in Rome. In the light of the established universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights and the human rights mainstreaming initiative, these tendencies of “forum shopping” are highly problematic and symptomatic for the volatile status of human rights, and in particular economic, social and cultural as well as collective rights.


Palais des Nations, Geneva (Credit: C. Anthes, 2016)

Beyond rhetoric? FAO’s uncertain buy-in to human rights

States, their practices and attitudes are important when we aim at understanding why human rights and the right to food approach are (still) being challenged at the CFS and in the Rome-based food agencies. But they are not the only (f)actors that matter. It is important to take into account and “zoom in” the connected institutional environment, the actual inner workings of the UN food agencies that are expected to advocate for and implement a right to food approach – in particular the FAO, the institutional home of the CFS.

How do organizational structures and cultures shape FAO’s buy-in to a right to food approach? How strong indeed is the backing within the FAO secretariat, including senior management, and how far has the mainstreaming of human rights in the organization actually advanced by now (beyond rhetoric)? This is up for debate. There are signs that FAO largely sees itself as a “technical” agency, which is still perceived as being irreconcilable with “political” human rights work. In this context, the right to food approach often has a difficult standing and is being side-lined within the FAO bureaucracy.

The momentum spurred by the adoption of the Right to Food Guidelines in 2004 has undeniably slowed down in recent years. In the CFS Plenary, FAO demonstrated impressively its focus and know-how on the “indicators & statistics” side of food security governance work and announced plans for investments in a new Office of Chief Statistician. At the same time, the Right to Food Team, the entity that is actually entrusted with human rights mainstreaming and the strengthening of the right to food portfolio within the organization and beyond, suffers from a serious resource and priority shortage. FAO could indeed do more to promote a right to food approach and it should be noted that its (in-)actions and prioritization also have serious repercussions on the state of human rights at the CFS and beyond. It would be short-sighted to leave “human rights work” to Geneva-based mechanisms. The integration of a strong right to food approach may change how business is done and help to make FAO’s interventions towards a world without hunger more sustainable.

Human rights belong to Rome as much as food security matters to Geneva.



Credit: C Anthes 2016



Carolin Anthes is Research Associate and PhD Candidate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Germany. She conducts research on human rights mainstreaming in the UN system with a focus on Rome-based UN agencies and the inter-agency link to Geneva. Prior to joining PRIF she worked as Right to Food Consultant in FAO headquarters in Rome.

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