Edited by Alexandra Huggins
On April 24, 2023, visiting professor Michelle Jurkovich hosted a discussion titled “Is Food a Human Right?,” the third of her three-part lecture series on the politics of food security. Jurkovich’s goal was to answer the titular question from a political lens, discussing who defines human rights and how they are operationalized.
The session kicked off with a discussion on the fundamental nature of human rights and how difficult it is to objectively define such a seemingly straightforward, almost common-sense concept. Answers varied from person to person, depending not only on cultural, academic, and professional background, but also on whether one took a philosophical or practical approach.
Jurkovich then moved on to discuss the history of an internationally sanctioned definition of human rights. While an understanding of the appropriate behavior and treatment of humans has changed over time, the current globally accepted version is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. At that critical juncture, in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, states from around the world convened to codify human rights at an international level. The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — a document that had no precedent in thousands of years of human history
The conversation then moved to an analysis of how the document was the product not only of a particular moment in time but also of the voices of certain actors—primarily the elected leaders of the Allied nations. Understanding their geopolitical as well as domestic political conditions is germane to explaining why certain rights made it into the list while others didn’t, as well as the amount of space or importance afforded to individual rights. For instance, the document devotes an unexpected amount of space to the rights of illegitimate children – simply because this was an important issue for a large number of British women who had borne children fathered by American soldiers during the war.
The right to food was ultimately included in the document as a subset of the overarching right to adequate health. It is interesting to note that all other rights included in the Declaration were pulled from preexisting documents, mostly from national constitutions or domestic legal systems of participating states. However, the right to food was novel in that it did not exist as an enforceable right in any prior legal document.
While the UDHR was not a binding document, a series of legally binding agreements subsequently recognized the right to food as a human right, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) adopted in 1966 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted in 1989.
Jurkovich then moved on to discuss how various states approach the question of operationalizing the right to food. The UDHR made no distinction between rights, however, practically, states have recognized two distinct types of human rights — political and civil rights, such as the right to free speech and assembly, which simply require the state to refrain from interfering with individual freedoms, and economic and social rights, which require investment and engagement with economic markets.
The right to food is an economic right, and the role of the market cannot be ignored. The state has to step in when there is a market gap — a difference between the highest price the poorest buyers can afford and the lowest price at which sellers are willing to sell food. In the US context, for instance, the right to food is implemented via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); however, since there are minimum work requirements for eligibility for SNAP benefits, it cannot be categorized as a program enforcing a universal human right. Interestingly, the US is the only nation that has signed neither the ICESCR nor the CRC.
The talk concluded with a lively Q&A session, touching upon wide-ranging issues including the level of standards to which human rights should be enforced, how states can be shamed into complying with international standards, and the merits of cash transfer as a broad approach to ensure all market-related rights.