Human Rights: En route to the Right to Food *Updated*

*I have updated this post with some more information about the history of human rights within the UN system.*
UN Human Rights Council logo

As I mentioned yesterday, I am starting research into the Right to Food. As a starting point I have quickly reviewed and defined human rights.  Indeed, there is a lot of talk and a great deal of history behind the notion of human rights but what exactly do we mean? I will not go into the rich political, ethical and philosophical history in this post. Instead, I present a very simplified and hopefully clear definition of human rights as a starting point to allow us to look more closely at the right to food.

Three years after the creation of the United Nations the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “a common standard of achievement for all people and nations” and lay the cornerstone and reference point of contemporary human rights law (UN 1948). The thirty articles that make up the UDHR articulate the basic civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of every human.

Two years before the adoption of the UDHR the UN Commission of Human Rights was established as the main UN body to promote and protect human rights. The Commission, which operated only six months a year, became discredited after countries which were seen as having abused human rights were elected onto the Commission.

In 2005, the UN Secretary General replaced the Commission with a full-time Human Rights Council with members elected through the UN General Assembly. This Council met for the first time in Geneva in June 2006.  The USA did not seek election to the Council, stating that the reforms were not sufficient.

In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both entered into force in 1976. These two covenants and the UDHR make up the International Bill of Rights. The International Bill of Rights translated the rights into legally binding commitments, with monitoring committees to ensure the compliance of states.

In 1993 the Austrian Government hosted an international conference on human rights organized by the UN Centre for Human Rights. On the final day of the conference, the 7000 participants adopted the 39 principles of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action which was then endorsed by the UN General Assembly (resolution 28/121). The result was a “common plan” for strengthening human rights around the world (UN 1993).  With respect to the right to development, the Declaration on the Right to Development was reaffirmed as a universal right with fundamental connections to other human rights.

According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Article 1):

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

To begin, a right is understood to be a legal, social, or ethical principle of freedom or entitlement. As such, rights are normative rules outlining what is allowed to people or owed to them. Rights are rooted in a legal system, social convention or ethical theory.

Human rights are fundamental rights and freedoms for human survival, liberty and dignity recognized by the global community and protected by international legal instruments.  They are universal, indivisible and interrelated.

Just who constitutes the global community s unclear and up for debate but within human rights law, only states have legal obligations towards human rights. Governments must respect human rights by refraining from violating them and by taking the responsibility of protecting people to ensure their rights.

States have three levels of legal obligations when it comes to human rights:

  1. Obligation to protect
  2. Obligation to respect
  3. Obligation to fulfill
    1. To facilitate
    2. To provide

With clarity on what we mean by human rights, in my next post I will consider how a human rights approach can support development projects and the Millennium Development Goals, especially MDG 1: Eradicating poverty and hunger in the world

After that, I will focus on the Right to Food.

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