Hunger and the law: freedom from hunger as a freestanding right.

Author:Yigzaw, Destaw A.
Position:I. Introduction into III. The Right to Food and the Politics of Hunger B. Hunger Is a Human Right Violation, p. 655-684
  1. INTRODUCTION II. WHAT IS HUNGER? A. The Scope of Global Hunger B. Manifestations of Hunger C. Controversy: Causes of Hunger D. Consensus: A World without Hunger III. THE RIGHT TO FOOD AND THE POLITICS OF HUNGER A. Human Rights in Overcoming Hunger B. Hunger is a Human Right Violation C. Justiciability of the Right to Food IV. REINTERPRETING THE RIGHT TO FOOD A. Interpreting Human Rights V. TWO DISTINCT RIGHTS A. Different Roots B. Different Normative Content C. Different Beneficiaries D. Different Obligations VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    We live in the age of rights. This is also the age of unprecedented economic prosperity (recent economic downturns notwithstanding). Such general characterizations, however, mask cruel irony of massive deprivation. For hundreds of millions, both human rights and prosperity are no more than myths. For them, life is still "nasty, brutish, and short." (1) Nothing better epitomizes the irony besetting the unprecedented global prosperity and the hypocrisy of human rights discourse than the state of global hunger. The world produces more food than is needed to feed every person on the planet. (2) Yet, around a billion people go hungry every day. (3) Few things are more scandalous. But this is also a question of law. The fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger has been sanctioned in legally binding human rights instruments and numerous declarations. (4) Although this is often forgotten, hunger represents arguably the most comprehensive human right violation in the world today.

    The prevailing ideological bias against socioeconomic rights largely explains the total neglect of the pervasive violation of the right to food. Yet, there is also a degree of conceptual uncertainty. Conventionally, freedom from hunger is viewed as a component of the broader right to adequate food, with just more urgency attached to the obligation correlating to the former. This Article seeks to challenge that view. It argues that, while it is obvious that both rights relate to food, they are substantially different, and should be treated as such. Technically, treating the fundamental right to be free from hunger as a separate norm imposing unconditional and immediate obligations is warranted

    by the text and spirit of pertinent treaty provisions. Practically, such understanding, it is argued here, extricates the right from contingencies upon which the progressive realization of the broader right to adequate food is predicated.

    The Article is structured as follows. The next Part will briefly sketch the scale and manifestations of hunger, and explore its root causes. This Part further details the prevailing consensus that a world without hunger is not a utopia. Building on such analysis, Part three demonstrates why hunger is a political rather than a technical problem. The argument here is that hunger subsists not for lack of resources or technical knowhow to end the tragedy, but for lack of political will to do so. Part three also highlights why hunger constitutes a flagrant human right violation. It is argued here that hunger is commonly viewed as an unfortunate fact of life rather than as a human right violation, in part because the orthodox understanding of freedom from hunger just as component of the progressively realizable right to adequate food rather than as a freestanding right conceals the urgency and unconditional nature of the obligation it imposes. Against this backdrop, Part four advocates a reinterpretation of the right to food. It argues that, contrary to the conventional understanding, the right to food, contained in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) actually embraces two distinct rights: the right to be free from hunger and the right to adequate food. The last Part details textual, normative, and pragmatic grounds that warrant treating freedom from hunger as a freestanding right, distinct from the broader right to adequate food.


    Probing the concept of hunger is by no means dwelling on the obvious. Although much about hunger is obvious, there is also conceptual disagreement on what it is, precisely. (5) The term lacks proper scientific definition. (6) The thorniest controversy, however, relates to the question of what causes hunger and why it is allowed to persist. Disagreement on the diagnosis of the problem leads to disagreements in its possible remedies. For example, Thomas Malthus and his followers believe hunger is a natural tragedy that occurs when human reproduction outpaces food production. (7) The answer is thus limiting population growth, lest famine itself will ensure population-nature equilibrium. According to Karl Marx, however, hunger is a question of class exploitation, not of overpopulation. (8) Thus, exploitative capitalism, not nature, is to blame. (9) Without dismissing either Malthus or Marx altogether, Amartya Sen rejects their approaches attributing hunger to a single monolithic cause. According to Sen, one has to look deeper and examine every factor that shapes individuals' ability to acquire adequate food. (10) For George Kent, hunger is a form of violence for which human society (as opposed to nature) is responsible. (11) Some commentators even attach grave and individual criminal responsibility in some cases of famine. (12) Others conceptualize hunger differently. Before turning to these rather controversial issues, let us briefly look into the scale of the problem and its different manifestations.

    1. The Scope of Global Hunger

      Scholars describe endemic hunger as "the Silent Holocaust." (13) Strikingly, without taking into account other age groups, an estimated six million children under the age of five perish each year from hunger. (14) This figure parallels the number of Holocaust victims. (15) Only a small percentage of these victims are killed by an outbreak of famine or other types of dramatic collapse of food supply that makes news headlines. The overwhelming majority of them die of the synergistic effects of hunger and malnutrition. (16) That means two things. First, even during times when there is no famine in the world, endemic hunger causes mortality of catastrophic proportions. Second, the victims succumb mainly unnoticed. (17) Hence, scholars have described endemic hunger as silent holocaust.

      However, the parallel between hunger and the Holocaust is not just about figures. It is about dispelling the perception that hunger is a natural tragedy. It is about highlighting that hunger is, indeed, "a form of violence." (18) It is about shifting the burden of responsibility from the draught, the flood, locusts, rodents and other traditional causes of harvest failure to human society. (19) It is about challenging the international community's tolerance of hunger.

    2. Manifestations of Hunger

      "Hunger occurs in three different forms: acute, chronic, and hidden." (20) Acute hunger results from a sudden exposure to starvation as a result of famine, war or any other disaster. (21) It is responsible for about ten percent of human suffering from starvation. (22) The overwhelming ninety percent of victims suffer from chronic hunger, which refers...

To continue reading