Press Release

Response to food crisis must address underlying inequalities, says Arbour

22 May 2008

GENEVA -- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned Thursday that a failure to respond to the global food crisis in a comprehensive manner that encompasses the rights of marginalized members of societies could trigger a “domino effect” that would exacerbate the situation.

In a speech to states attending a Geneva-based Human Rights Council special session on the food crisis, Arbour said that “At its core and in its punitive effects, this crisis boils down to a lack of access to adequate food. Such access is a right protected in international law.”

She pointed to the risk of a long-term vicious circle of discrimination and hunger: “The ongoing emergency may also reinforce long-entrenched patterns of exclusion and discrimination that have prevented the most vulnerable from claiming their rightful access to food in the first place.”

Speaking at the beginning of the day-long Human Rights Council debate, Arbour said the crisis “stems from a perverse convergence of several factors, including distortions in supply and demand, unfair trade practices, as well as skewed policies involving incentives or subsidies.”

In some regions, she added, “natural disasters or misguided policies – or both – compound already severe situations and render them catastrophic for the most discriminated and marginalized populations.”

While recognizing that, in a food emergency, the immediate needs were for humanitarian aid, she urged states to also focus on the longer-term human rights dimension of the food crisis. She also strongly recommended that the most affected groups be fully involved in crafting responses to the crisis. Such an approach would, she said, help “clarify the imbalances in a society that trigger or exacerbate the food crisis.”

A failure to act in a comprehensive manner, Arbour said, “may also trigger a domino effect by putting at risk other fundamental rights, including the right to health or to education, when people are forced to forego competing basic necessities and services in order to feed themselves and their families.”

She reminded government representatives attending the Human Rights Council that “states, individually and collectively, have a legal obligation under human rights law to remedy such situations and to provide sustainable access to food without discrimination.” She noted that the private sector also has a responsibility to act in a manner that does not harm the enjoyment of human rights.

“Unfair practices, including distortions in trade, as well as in domestic supply and demand, have … come into much sharper focus,” Arbour said. “The nature of this crisis transcends national boundaries… It requires concerted measures from states to rectify those inequities that have contributed to trigger the emergency and that now threaten to perpetuate it.”

Arbour welcomed the Human Rights Council’s engagement in the issue, as signified by its decision to hold Thursday’s ‘Special Session,’ saying it should help throw light onto the human rights dimension of the food crisis.

“Very few issues,” she said, “speak as forcefully as this one about individual rights and collective action, and about the intolerable inequalities that affect millions through no fault of their own.”

The right to food is enshrined in various international human rights treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and calls on States – individually and collectively – to improve methods of food production, conservation and distribution, and to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies.

The full text of the statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council can be viewed at www.ohchr.org