New trade talks must address right to food, says UN Special Rapporteur

Pointing out that international trade rules and agricultural liberalization have undermined food security in the developing world, a UN expert has, in a report to the Commission on Human Rights, asserted that the WTO must take up the issue of human rights, including the right to food, in its new round of trade negotiations.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: The new round of trade talks at the World Trade Organization must address the issue of human rights and the right to food, but if it does not, “we must search for other means of integrating human rights and the right to food into the rules of international trade,” according to Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

There are an estimated 815 million undernourished people in the world, mainly in the 122 Third World countries, and every year 36 million die, directly or indirectly, as a result of hunger and nutritional deficiencies. This “silent, daily massacre” due to hunger must be stopped, Ziegler said.

Ziegler’s report (E/CN.4/2002/58) to the UN Commission on Human Rights, currently in session here, is the second by the Special Rapporteur. It also covers the issue of safe drinking water and its links to the right to food, as called for by the UN General Assembly, which discussed his preliminary report last year and reaffirmed the right to food.

The Ziegler report also draws attention to “a sort of schizophrenia” and the “profound internal contradictions” within the UN system, and says this  needs to be addressed by states which are both parties to the human rights treaties and members of the international financial institutions.

On the one hand, says Ziegler, the UN and its agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme emphasize the importance of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to food, and promote development.

On the other hand, Ziegler points out, the Bretton Woods institutions, along with the government of the United States and the WTO, “oppose in their practice the right to food by means of the Washington Consensus, emphasizing liberalization, deregulation, privatization and the compression of State domestic budgets, a model that produces greater inequalities.”

“This contradictory behaviour of States has to be corrected,” Ziegler said.

Harmful to food security

In today’s world, it has become clear that “the market by itself cannot guarantee the basic needs of the whole of society (and) many people are left by the wayside.”

Judged by the World Bank’s own data, the benefits of globalization and world trade have clearly not been equally distributed. Many NGOs also point out that trade liberalization and globalization have been harmful to food security and the right to food, and that liberalization of agriculture which has occurred mainly in developing countries - largely under programmes of structural adjustment rather than WTO provisions - has produced increased hunger and malnutrition.

“Developed countries,” the Special Rapporteur points out, “still have more autonomy to control their local food security compared with developing countries. Developed countries have been slower to liberalize agriculture, despite provisions made under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture to create a level playing field in the agricultural trading system in terms of market access, export subsidies and domestic support.

“Agriculture has continued to be protected and supported in many developed economies, while developing countries have had to liberalize under structural adjustment programmes - removing all subsidy support as well as drastically reducing import barriers to food imports, well beyond what is formally required under the WTO.”

“This,” the Special Rapporteur notes, “has created an unlevel playing field in which subsidies of developed countries act as a disincentive to agricultural production in developing countries.”

This is why civil society organizations have called for the WTO to recognize the primacy of human rights law over international trade law in the new round of trade negotiations, Ziegler says.

The NGOs claim that the WTO agreements have had a negative effect on human rights, and the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) has been blamed for negative impacts on livelihoods and food security of peasant farmers in developing countries, “who have been forced to liberalize and open up their markets without significant reciprocal liberalization of the developed countries in terms of market access, export subsidies or domestic support.”

Referring to complaints that the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) could be implemented in ways that limit peasant farmers’ access to seeds for replanting, and that indigenous cultural heritage and knowledge have not been sufficiently protected against patenting by external interests, the Special Rapporteur said this was why some states have called for the right to food to be taken up in the new round of trade negotiations.

He cites in this connection the proposal of a number of developing countries for protecting their food security through a “development/food security box”.

Norway, Ziegler notes, has proposed that WTO commitments should not conflict with obligations of states to respect the right to food, and called for WTO policy reform to be undertaken in ways consistent with other relevant multilateral commitments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the right to food (under the UN human rights declaration and covenants). And the “public good” nature of agriculture demands that some level of subsidies may be needed to support local domestic production, according to Norway, which, however, argues for “tighter control of export-oriented production to ensure that subsidies are not used to subsidize the export sector, thereby acting as a disincentive on production of other countries.”

The proposal of a number of developing countries for a food security box has recognized the specific food security needs and special situations of developing countries, though it has not mentioned the “the right to food”. The proposal only calls for exemptions that would give developing countries greater policy autonomy to protect the production of food staples. Food security, they argue, is fundamental for national security.

NGOs, the Ziegler report points out, have said “food-security crops” should be defined as crops which are either staple foods in the country concerned or the main source of livelihood for poor farmers. Of course, there would still be problems if developing countries could not afford to support local production of small farmers, and if developed-country protection continued to limit market access opportunities, the Special Rapporteur notes.

However, the proposal had made some concrete suggestions for steps towards changing the AoA to meet food security needs of developing countries and even out the current unlevel playing field.

“None of these proposals,” Ziegler comments caustically, “were examined in Doha” at the WTO’s Ministerial Conference last year.

The NGOs have argued that, contrary to the claims of EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, Doha did not in fact manage to launch a “development round” of trade talks to help the poorest countries. The key points of the Doha Declaration in fact contradict the interests of the developing countries. The demand for development and food security boxes was completely ignored.

“If the right to food is not taken up by the WTO,” says Ziegler in the report to the Human Rights Commission, “we must search for other means of integrating human rights and the right to food into the rules of international trade.”

For example, it is important to look at the extension of human rights obligations to non-state actors. Unlike their member states, international organizations such as the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions are not subject to international human rights law as such, because they are not parties to the international human rights treaties. However, this understanding is changing - as the understanding of justiciability has changed - as new work is being done on the obligations of non-state actors, including multinational companies.

It is important to examine developments in this field, and this will be the prime objective of the Special Rapporteur in his next report.

Ziegler also notes the “shifting debate” on the TRIPS Agreement  as a result of the developments within the debate  on  HIV/AIDS  and patents on medicines to treat epidemics, and “there may be a victory of the right to health over the right to intellectual property patents.”

This would be very relevant to the right to food, in terms of the long-running debate over biotechnology and patents covering seeds and genetic resources. The HIV/AIDS case could provide a useful framework for examination of the situation in relation to questions over the TRIPS Agreement and concerns that patents on seeds limit access of peasant farmers to seeds for replanting and indigenous communities are effectively denied their cultural heritage and knowledge. (SUNS5089)                                     

From TWE No 277 (16-31 March 2002)