Maverick Citizen: International Human Rights Day
Human rights for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Today marks the 71st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration remains a remarkable document. It sets out rights inherent to all human beings, everywhere. It is the foundation stone of the international and regional human rights treaties that followed—and thus holds special moral and political significance.
Article 28 of the Declaration states that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. Many countries, including South Africa, reflect its provisions in their constitutions. Importantly, the rights proclaimed in the Declaration need to be interpreted in the light of emerging global challenges.
Among other rights, the Declaration asserts that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food…” Section 27 of South Africa’s Constitution reinforces this right by affirming the right of South Africans to “sufficient food”. The right to health and the right to food are inexorably linked – with States obliged to respect, protect and fulfil these rights. Without sufficient food, we cannot survive, and without nutritious food, we cannot remain healthy.
That was then. This is now. It is something of an understatement to say that much has happened in the past 71 years. Over the course of three generations, activists of various stripes have brought down colonialism and brought in universal suffrage; unions and workers have gained improvements in wages and living standards and life expectancy has improved substantially. But a series of new, complex, challenges have emerged.
Many of these challenges could not have been foreseen by the negotiators of the Universal Declaration in 1948. Think climate breakdown and a dying planet. Think unprecedented inequalities between and within countries. In addition to these existential threats, human progress brings a host of new problems with it.
Social media which connects us, also facilitates an unprecedented intrusion into our private spaces. The micro-targeting of political and commercial advertisements is a pernicious modern phenomenon used to manipulate our values, priorities and vulnerabilities. These new problems require new solutions– solutions that must be articulated as rights, so that citizens can hold their leaders to account for delivering on them.
One of the most urgent challenges is the interlinked crises of obesity, malnutrition, food systems and climate change. These problems affect each and every one of us. Those responsible for the Universal Declaration would have felt the long shadow that famine and starvation cast over their proceedings. The fact that, 71 years later, 41% of South African women would be classed as obese and a further 20% severely obese would have seemed fanciful—and likely even desirable (as the public health consequences would not have been foreseen). And yet obesity rates in the country have been increasing and are predicted to continue to rise and are rising fastest in rural areas.
In this year’s State of the World’s Children report, UNICEF warns that the world is off-track to meet its Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2030 commitments on stunting, wasting and overweight. This is largely because so many children are eating too little of what they need and too many more are eating too much of what they don’t.
These trends are hardly surprising. Eating patterns have been revolutionized — not always in good ways. They have deteriorated largely in response to the food systems and food environments that drive them. Fast food outlets have penetrated South African cities and their commuter belts and according to industry, fast food deliveries are exploding. As is the case with most social problems, it is marginalized and vulnerable people who are disproportionately affected by malnutrition.
Clearly the right to adequate food is an important one, but in this changing food landscape, we need to think about what we mean by adequate. Adequate is no longer simply about sufficient food, it is now more a case of access to nutritious and healthy food. We need foods (and drinks) that are farmed, processed and prepared in ways that are not harmful to people and planet.
The starting point to fixing this problem lies in recognising that in many countries, market forces are failing to deliver healthy diets, adequate nutrition and sustainable food systems.
If framing food purely as a commodity, and if framing food systems purely as business networks supplying commodities in response to market demand, was effective, countries wouldn’t be buckling under the strain of a massive, preventable burden of diabetes, obesity and chronic, diet-related diseases.
Given this state of affairs, earlier this year the Lancet Commission on Obesity called for “a radical rethink of business models, food systems, civil society involvement, and national and international governance” to address these problems.
Taking one step towards that rethink, 180 experts called on the Director-General of the World Health Organisation and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to jointly lead a process to develop international guidance on human rights and healthy diets. They did so based on their experience and belief that human rights concepts and language are persuasive, under-used tools that governments can use in the fight against poor diets and unsustainable food systems. International human rights law provides a powerful way to frame these, and other new challenges.
The Open Call published in the British Medical Journal draws on the example of the United Nations International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights (1998), which clarified the legal obligations of States, under international law, to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in the context of HIV.
The HIV guidelines were important because they helped to define global and national strategies for HIV prevention and treatment in terms of the human rights of those affected by HIV. They also provided language and conceptual tools for civil society organizations to hold governments to account. We have seen the use of these guidelines in South Africa to great effect in policies and laws on the rights of people living with HIV, as well as in each National Strategic Plans for HIV, TB and STIs developed by the country since 2007.
We believe that international guidelines on human rights and healthy diets could help to mobilise action, strengthen the accountability of States and the private sector, and deepen community engagement in the urgent task of developing healthier, fairer and sustainable food systems so that everyone has food that is both adequate and nutritious to survive and thrive.
The right to healthy food ought to be protected at every breakfast, lunch and dinner for everybody, everywhere. If you agree, why not join the open call at the Healthy Societies 2030 website. MC
Kent Buse is Chief, Strategic Policy Directions, UNAIDS. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of UNAIDS.