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Right to Food is also a Human Right

10 March 2016

By Chairperson Lourence Mushwana, Commissioner responsible for Migration & Equality

It is not a co-incidence that the South African Human Rights Commission decided to launch the Right to Food which on a day prior to the Human Rights Day in South Africa.

There must be a particular reason for the Constitutional imperative which states that ‘everyone has the right to adequate food and water’

This Right to Food forms part of the socio economic rights as set out in our Constitution and it is indeed our 2012/13 Theme.

We therefore need to explore that particular reason and indeed critically analyse what the Right to Food actually entails and whether as a Country this socio economic right is observed, respected, promoted, protected and indeed accessible to all citizens in this Country.

We therefore need to identify challenges and obstacles that prevent the optimal implementation of this right and come out with specific corrective and remedial proposals that will ensure that it is fully implemented going forward.

The question may be asked as to what is so significant or special about the Right to Food. Jean Ziegler, former UN Special rapporteur on the right to food stated: “In a world overflowing with riches, it is an outrageous scandal that almost 900 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition and that every year over 6 million children die of starvation and related causes. We must take urgent action now. ..”

This being the twentieth year of our hard earned democracy, it may be opportune to critically assess how far as Country have we succeeded with the implementation of this right, especially in as far as vulnerable people such as women, children, people with disabilities, foreign nationals etc are concerned.
It is important that as we critically assess progress made in implementing the Right to Food we do so with special reference to the level of poverty in the Country and of course whether the gap between the rich and poor is by any means narrowing or growing.

It has become common knowledge that there is an ongoing debate in South Africa and abroad on whether the appropriate term to use is Right to Food or Food Security or Food Sovereignty and indeed as to what comes first.

To me irrespective of the term we choose to use, in the South African context it must be such that it accommodates all citizens, especially the marginalised, the poorest of the poor living in abject poverty.
The debacle of the Mmupele family of Verdwaal near Lichtenburg in North West Province (where four children died of hunger in 2011 while looking for their mother who had gone to look for food) is a sad and constant reminder that not all is well in our Country when it comes to poverty and that we, especially the Government, must redouble our efforts and confront the scourge of poverty because democracy will never be meaningful until it reaches each and every citizen in this Country.

As the Commission, we have in the past few months held many workshops, dialogues and discussions with our people across the Country who have made valuable contributions, stories that our government need hear.
As a Commission our work also requires us to monitor government obligations made in terms of international and regional treaties.
One such is the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Also in 2001 the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights recognised that the right to food falls under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights as recognized implicitly by article 4 (right to life) and article 16 (right to health) of the African Charter, and the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa or "Maputo Protocol" (Article 15).

In 2013 AU celebrated Africa Day as Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security - focusing on the “right to adequate food” as an organizing framework for policies and strategies to address food and nutrition insecurity in Africa.

In 2014, the world will celebrate a decade of the 2004 Right to Food Guidelines (Voluntary Guidelines to support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security) which was adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
While not a legally binding document, it draws from international law, norms and standards on the right to food.

As a country, the question we need to ask ourselves is how will we use the Guidelines firstly to raise awareness and secondly to hold government accountable?

Considering some of the developments on the right to food in Africa, we note that South Africa, Kenya, the Ivory Coast and Niger have already given direct constitutional protection to the right to food, while reform processes are underway in Nigeria, and Zambia.

The 2011 Zanzibar Food Security and Nutrition Act affirms the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to food and establishes a National Food Security and Nutrition Council, as well as mainstreaming food security into various sectoral policies.
Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Mali have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, framework legislation for agriculture, food and nutrition that enshrines rights-based principles of entitlements and access to food.
In terms of developments within our legal system; the South African High Court ordered a revision of the Marine Living Resources Act and the creation of the Small-Scale Fisheries Policy to ensure the socio-economic rights of small-scale fishers (2012). This is a significant achievement which we must applaud.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the ECOWAS Court of Justice ECOWAS ruled in 2012 that Nigeria violated the right to food of the Ogoni people by failing to protect their land from environmental damage in the Niger delta.
The High Court of Uganda ordered in 2013 that compensation be paid to 2,041 individuals who had been evicted from their land in 2001 after the Government sold the land to foreign investors for a coffee plantation.
We look to other examples in Africa and the world to measure ourselves against and despite the vast achievements we have made in food security over the past twenty years; not every citizen in South Africa has fully enjoyed the right to food.
As we celebrate 20 years of political freedom and Human Rights month, we should take stock of how far we have come as a nation to ensure the rights, including the Right to Food are realized.


Adv. Lawrence Mushwana is the Chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission. This is an edited version of his speech delivered at the launch of Right To Food campaign as part of Human Rights Month on Thursday in Johannesburg.

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