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Government abuses exacerbate food crises, Arbour tells Rome conference

4 June 2008

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour on Wednesday told world leaders and other high-level delegates attending the Conference on World Food Security in Rome that human rights violations by governments often lie at the roots of food crises as well as hinder efforts to feed affected populations.

“Food insecurity is often compounded by warfare, bad governance, and natural disasters,” Arbour said. “In such cases, it becomes painfully evident that we cannot always rely on the willingness and ability of national authorities to discharge their obligations towards people in need. Not surprisingly, governments that commit or turn a blind eye to gross violations of human rights are also the most likely to disregard their duties and responsibilities.”

Arbour emphasized that problems of access to hungry populations did not simply emerge at the start of a crisis, but were part of a much longer-term pattern of human rights violations: “Long-standing international tolerance for human rights abuses allows both the obstruction of international assistance when a need arises, as well as the hindrance of corrective international efforts in the long term,” she said.

The High Commissioner told delegates that a human rights framework was essential to examine and confront “the deeply rooted obstacles that hinder people’s ability to produce or obtain food.” It would, she added, “help to clarify the power imbalances inside and between countries that trigger or exacerbate the food crisis, including unfair trade practices or skewed policies involving incentives and subsidies.

A human rights focus would help “identify the additional critical vulnerabilities and disproportionate impact of the food crisis on those individuals and groups that already suffer from discrimination and a denial of rights,” she said, adding that it would also
“bolster our capacity to monitor the effects of the crisis … its disparate impact on different groups, and the effectiveness of our responses in reaching all equitably.”

Speaking shortly after her address, Arbour said she was deeply concerned by emerging news that the Zimbabwe government may have ordered a halt to food distributions by some international aid agencies in Zimbabwe until after the presidential elections. "If true, this would be an unconscionable act," she said. "To deprive people of food because of an election would be an extraordinary perversion of democracy, and a serious breach of international human rights law."