United Nations System
Report from the fifth meeting of the SCN Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights
Sunday, 11 April
1999, UNHCHR, Geneva
1. Introduction by the WG Chairman
In his introduction, the Working Group Chairman pointed to the significant progress that has occurred over the last few years in advancing understanding, acceptance and action in the field of a rights based approach to nutrition problems with emphasis on its three main elements: food, health and care.
The dedication of the symposium at the 26th SCN Session to the theme of nutrition and human rights, was evidence that human rights are taking hold in the development work of the SCN and its member agencies. The question was no longer whether a rights-based approach should be adopted, but rather how it should be applied. The World Food Summits renewed focus on the right to adequate food and the UN Secretary-General's reform proposals calling for the mainstreaming of human rights in all UN activities, have significantly contributed to creating an overall environment conducive to bringing an ethics and rights dimension to the fight against hunger and poverty.
The Chairman referred to his paper on the "Work of the SCN Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights" prepared for the 26th session of the SCN and the 5th meeting of the WG. In this paper, he synthesizes the efforts by the WG since its creation in 1993 and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Main discussion items at the WG's fifth meeting were:
2. Developments since the 25th SCN Session
2.1 General overview
In his general overview, Uwe Kracht of WANAHR and joint secretary/rapporteur of theWG, summarized developments since the last SCN session in three categories: (i) events directly related to the World Food Summit Objective 7.4, (ii) country level developments and (iii) other activities. He recalled that the World Food Summit objective 7.4 had invited the UNHCHR to clarify the content of the right to adequate food and identify ways of its implementation and realization, also raising the possibility of developing voluntary guidelines in this regard. In response, the High Commissioner for Human Rights had organized two consultations, the first one in Geneva in December 1997, and the second in Rome in November 1998 co-hosted by FAO. The reports of these two consultations were submitted to the respective subsequent sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Also in relation to WFS Objective 7.4, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had drafted a Draft General Comment on the Right to Adequate Food, providing the Committees interpretation of this right as stipulated in article 11, 1 and 2 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This draft had been widely circulated for comments, to be considered at the Committees session in May 1999. It is expected that the Committee will also consider, at a later stage, the adequacy of the existing guidelines for the obligatory state reporting on compliance with the right to adequate food, as part of the international monitoring and supervision of State Party performance and accountability.
The Committee had also considered, at its 18th Session in April/May 1998 the role of a human rights based programming approach within the UNDAF process. It made a strong call for incorporating economic, social and cultural rights into the UNDAF framework and specifically recommended that the UNDAF guidelines be revised to allow for a rights-based UNDAF programming. At the same session the Committee had also considered the risks of globalization in terms of "downgrading the central place accorded to human rights by the United Nations Charter in general and the International Bill of Human Rights in particular".
On the part of civil society and NGOs, efforts included the drafting of an International Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food, an initiative spearheaded by FIAN, WANAHR and Jacques Martian International. The unique feature of that code consists in its going beyond defining state obligations and encompasses obligations of civil society, private sector actors, and international agencies. After endorsement by over 800 NGOs, the next step of moving this code forward would include efforts to build political support in intergovernmental fora such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the competent intergovernmental bodies of FAO including especially its Committeeon Food Security.
At the country level there have been encouraging activities in developing a human rights based approach to nutrition problems in South Africa and Brazil.
Members of the WG and its support network contributed to the substantive initial planning of these activities, and participated in preliminary meetings in Brasilia in 1998 and in the consultative conference on Food Security and Nutrition as Human Rights organized by the South African Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg in March 1999. They also facilitated contact between South Africa and Brazil to encourage information and exchange between the two countries, including Brazils participation in the South African conference.
The experiences of both countries were presented to the SCN Symposium on the following day.
Among the many other events reference was made to the Sympsoium on Human Development and Human Rights, organized by the UNDP and the UNHCHR and co-hosted by the Government of Norway in Oslo in October 1998. It was also pointed out that the World Bank had recently issued a publication on Development and Human Rights. Moreover the Working Groups active role in providing advice and inputs into the planning of the SCN Symposium was noted.
2.2 Activities of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In his report on UNHCHR activities, Mr. Carlos Villain Duran highlighted recommendations of specific relevance to the SCN from the second consultation in Rome in November 1998. These included:
Mr. Villan Duran also underlined the importance of improved collaboration among SCN member agencies at the country level, particularly in the context of UNDAF.
2.3 Highlights from FAOs rights-related activities
Mr. Hartwig de Haen, Assistant Director-General of FAO, introduced the publication "The Right to Food in Theory and Practice" prepared by FAO on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with contributions from the other food agencies in Rome and a few invited experts. In this connection he highlighted a number of concerns to FAO. First a recent FAO study found that only a small number of countries have a reference to the right to food and nutrition in their constitutions, and not a single country currently disposes of national legislation pertaining to the right to food. Other FAO concerns point to the need for more attention to the right to food and nutrition in emergency situations, and to the role of effective safety nets in the realization of food and nutrition rights. Moreover, the feminization of poverty in general and of agriculture in particular, is a prominent area for exploring the value of rights-based approaches to development and would help clarify and operationalize the right to food.
The publication also highlights the main elements of the aforementioned International Code of Conduct on the Human Right to Adequate Food.
For FAO the right to food and nutrition is of major importance, and the Organization is interested in a wide range of activities including the organization of workshops at country level and the provision of relevant policy advice, notably in the area of developing national "framework legislation".
2.4 Building human rights understanding among the development and human rights communities the example of the Draft Tutorial on Fundamentals of the Human Right to Food and Nutrition .
Throughout its work, the WG has expressed concern for the need of building understanding of a human rights approach to nutrition, through various methods of information, education and communication IEC and related capacity-building efforts. An important activity in this area has been the HCHRs initiative for disseminating human rights training material throughout the UN system. On the part of NGOs, a WANAHR affiliate undertook a noteworthy educational effort by developing a web-based interactive tutorial on the "Fundamentals of the Human Right to Food and Nutrition". This tutorial was introduced to the Working Group by George Kent of the University of Hawaii. Its objective is to help its users understand the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights through the study of one aspect of these rights, i.e. the human right to food and nutrition. It is designed to help in formulating suggestions for improved policy or legislation with regard to this right in a country or agency. It suggests how users might formulate recommendations to adapt their countries or agencies activities to conform more closely to the human rights framework. At the deeper level, the purpose of the tutorial is to help expand the shared understanding of human rights in general and the right to food and nutrition in particular. The tutorial is not to be seen as a final product but will be continuously adjusted as experience accumulates. In this way tutorial users will actively mould the future shape of this tool.
3. Human rights based programming
Urban Jonsson shared with the Working Group the experiences in advancing human rights based understanding and programming in the context of UNICEFs activities. He synthesized for the participants the fundamental differences between the conventional basic needs strategy with its frequent overtones of charity, and a rights-based approach with its emphasis on entitlements, rights and obligations. He illustrated some of the central concepts such as rights holders /duty-bearers, and the different levels of obligations now commonly agreed on, namely respect, protect, facilitate and fulfill human rights. He also emphasized that these concepts would apply to all sectors of society: state, civil society and the private sector, at all levels of organization national, community, household/individual.
A rights-based approach has major implications for policy development and programming. Major elements of a rights-based programming are: causality analysis, role analysis, claims/duty analysis, accountability analysis, and action analysis. This programming approach would lead to more appropriate generic strategies built around the major pillars of advocacy, capacity building and service delivery.
In the ensuing lively discussion, a number of critical issues in relation-based approaches were raised, including:
4. Conclusions and recommendations for priority action for the WG and the SCN
As a general conclusion it can be said that the Working Groups fifth meeting had achieved a remarkable consensus on the importance of a human rights approach to development in general and to nutrition improvements in particular. This consensus occurred in the context of an increasingly human rights-friendly overall environment. Nevertheless, effectively mainstreaming human rights in all UN activities, as called for by the UN Secretary-General, remains a challenge of enormous dimensions. For the contribution that the SCN is called upon to make in this specific field of nutrition with its main components of food, health and care, the unfinished agenda remains considerable.
4.1 Overall recommendation
To live up to the challenge of completing its unfinished agenda, the SCN needs to lift its human rights concerns from an isolated working group activity into the mainstream of its overall work program. This must also be reflected in SCNs resource mobilization and allocation within the work program.
4.2 Specific recommendations
The Working Group recommends specifically that: