Right to Food, Coming Soon to a Constitution Near You?

The good people at the Takeaway invited me on this morning to talk about a recent NY Times article in which India’s Congress party is reported to be pushing for the right to food to be written into its constitution.

You could see this as a cynical attempt to grab votes in a country that’s home to the largest number of hungry people on the planet. And the Congress party is hardly above such cynicism.

But you could also see it as part of a trend by an increasing number of countries recognizing that freedom from hunger is so fundamental, that they want to build the human right to food into the very fabric of their countries laws, into their constitutions. India is by no means the first country to propose such a sweeping approach. Brazil earlier this year approved a change in its constitution to tackle hunger, joining a small group of countries adopting this kind of legislation.

Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, lucidly explains why more and more countries are putting the right to food at the basis of their legal documents here, and suggests that having a constitutional right to food helps

(a) by ensuring that governmental bodies will be held accountable, if they do not comply with the obligations the said framework imposes on them; (b) by ensuring that the right to food will be at the centre of national development strategies, which developing countries may then refer to in their dialogue with donor countries seeking to provide international aid; (c) by strengthening the position of countries in negotiations related to trade or investment, by referring their partners to the obligations they are imposed vis-à-vis their constituencies at domestic level.

That’s all well and good, but what if there’s no such thing as a right to food? Although the right is widely recognized, though not by the United States, there are two substantive questions we didn’t really get the chance to talk about on this morning’s show. First, is merely waving around the right to food sufficient to get the government to take action? Clearly not. As my friends Rahul Lahoti and Sanjay Reddy have noticed, the right to food in India is failing in a variety of ways. As Jeremy Bentham observed when talking about rights: “‘wants are not means; hunger is not bread.”

Second, then, does India’s failure around the right to food point to the charade of the idea of the right to food at all? To put it more generally, are rights really just discussions about things like due process and the operation of government? In other words, are civil and political rights the only rights there are? My co-guest on the show was Chris Jochnick, and he pointed out that even in the US, there’s a recognition of things like economic rights. Even in the US, there’s a widely recognized idea that children ought to be educated. If a person is to thrive in society, they need the advantages of a basic education, and the right to education isn’t a political or civil right, but an economic, social and cultural one

Which brings us back to the very origins of the distinction between social, economic and cultural rights on the one hand, and political and civil rights on the other. I wish we’d had time to talk about the Magna Carta, and in particular the insights from Peter Linebaugh’s fantastic book The Magna Carta Manifesto, which points out that right from the beginning, civil rights and economic rights went hand in hand.

You can’t have the right to life, liberty or happiness without the right to food. It seems as if, we’re coming back to that 800 year old realization.