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Address by Ms. Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the occasion of the 7th Special Session of the Human Rights Council

22 May 2008

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome this 7th special session of the Human Rights Council on the food emergency. The underlying causes and the current manifestations of the crisis, including high prices and shortages of food, jeopardize the well-being and rights of countless people. In some regions, natural disasters or misguided policies, or both, compound already severe situations by rendering them catastrophic for the most discriminated and marginalized populations.

Thus, while it is imperative to respond immediately to emergencies with commensurate humanitarian support and aid in order to address conditions of hunger, a human rights focus will contribute to making solutions more durable and more equitable in the medium and long run. Such focus helps to analyze and confront the differing impact of the crisis on people. It contributes to clarify the imbalances in a society that trigger or exacerbate the food crisis. It offers a legal framework underpinning States’ obligations, while concentrating on the empowerment and participation of the most marginalized groups. Crucially, it can bring into the debate the voices of these groups, as well as national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and international mechanisms to help monitor the situation over time and provide responses better attuned to needs.


The current food crisis stems from a perverse convergence of several factors, including distortions in supply and demand, unfair trade practices, as well as skewed policies involving incentives or subsidies.

Yet at its core and in its punitive effects, this crisis boils down to a lack of access to adequate food. Such access is a right protected by international law. The ongoing emergency may also reinforce long-entrenched patterns of exclusion and discrimination that have prevented the most vulnerable from claiming their rightful access to food in the first place. We must examine and address the repercussions of the crisis on those people already living in precarious and marginalized situations, particularly women and children, minorities and people with disabilities. At the same time, the deeply rooted causes of such discrimination and marginalization must also be eradicated, including exclusion from access to land, productive resources, decent work and public policy safety nets.

A failure to act in a comprehensive manner may also trigger a domino effect by putting at risk other fundamental rights, including the right to health or to education, when people are forced to forego competing basic necessities or services in order to feed themselves and their families.

Allow me to underscore once again that States, individually and collectively, have a legal obligation under human rights law to remedy such situations and to provide sustainable access to food without discrimination. States’ obligations regarding the right to food and freedom from hunger also entail the adoption of national strategies to ensure food and nutrition security for all.

There is no doubt that countries with stronger accountability systems are in a better position to control the internal causes affecting the increase in the price of food and to monitor the ways the crisis impacts on different population groups. An accountability system requires national legal and regulatory frameworks that translate the right to food into tangible and measurable national standards.

Furthermore, States have a duty to protect their populations against human rights abuses by non-State actors and to provide access to remedies when abuses do occur. In this context, let me also point out that at a minimum, private actors themselves have a responsibility to abide by conduct that does not harm the enjoyment of human rights.

By now we should no longer harbor any illusion that individual countries can confront the scale of these crises alone. Indeed, the food emergency has highlighted or exacerbated existing imbalances in the relationships among States, as well as in their individual cleavages and reaction capacities. Unfair practices, including distortions in trade, as well as in domestic supply and demand, have thus come into sharper focus. In short, the nature of this crisis transcends national boundaries. It involves collective responsibilities. It requires concerted measures from Sates to rectify those inequalities that have contributed to trigger the emergency and that now threaten to perpetuate it.

In this perspective, States must also support and extend cooperation to other States in need of assistance. Pledges to such cooperation and solidarity are enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Millennium Development Goals. The Covenant recognizes the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and calls on States--individually and collectively-- to improve methods of food production, conservation and distribution and to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies.

Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,

As I have mentioned, empowering people to secure food for themselves and for their family in a sustainable way is central to a human rights approach to the food crisis. Thus, in crafting viable responses to this emergency, the full participation of those most affected, either directly or through their representative organizations, is a sine qua non. This approach could also help to prevent civil unrest, as well as violations of civil and political rights in response to protest.

The UN human rights system can support national efforts to monitor the implementation of the right to food and freedom from hunger. This Council, at its sessions and through the Universal Periodic Review process, can stimulate and evaluate over time, national and international responses to the crisis. Mandate holders of the Council, such as the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, as well as UN treaty bodies, including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, can also monitor the implementation of the right to food and freedom from hunger and provide guidance to States on how to live up to their human rights obligations.

The whole United Nations system is tackling the humanitarian, scientific, economic and political aspects of the food crisis. I welcome the engagement of the Human Rights Council in throwing a light onto its human rights dimension. Your discussion today, and sustained engagement in the future, are necessary to bring rights to bear on measures that have been adopted and will be put in place as responses to the food emergency. Few issues speak as forcefully as this one about individual rights and collective action and about the intolerable inequalities that affect millions through no fault of their own.

I wish you a most productive debate. Thank you.