ABA Resolution on the Right to Food

The American Bar Association, a national association of lawyers with approximately 400,000 members, recently adopted a resolution on the right to food. Such a resolution is arguably significant: the ABA is not a human rights organization, but an association representing mainstream American lawyers — not a community that has always fully embraced economic, social and cultural rights. (Though this is not the first time that the ABA has adopted a resolution on an ESC right.)

The ABA right-to-food resolution is short and simple; in its entirety, it states:

“RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges governments to promote the human right to adequate food and nutrition for all through increased funding, development and implementation of strategies to prevent infringement of that right.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges the United States government to make the realization of a human right to adequate food a principal objective of U.S. domestic policy.”

Though sparse, this resolution is a great step; I was thrilled to see it.

I was less enthused to see some of the responses. Unsurprisingly, given the atrocious comments found around the Internet, the announcement on the ABA Journal’s website led to a host of uninformed and callous remarks. Although I generally avoid getting into debates in comments sections, I was curious to read the responses, and dismayed by much of what I saw. Since I’ve written and spoken about the right to food and the United States several times – most recently on this site in November – I decided to draft a short response to add to the “discussion.”

Alas, the comments section was closed by the time I got around to trying to post something, but I am including below my intended short response. These three paragraphs also could be read simply as a short summary of the right to food’s status, its definition, and its acceptance by the United States.

A response to comments on the ABA right-to-food resolution
The right to food is codified in a number of binding and non-binding international legal instruments, including, most significantly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is legally binding for ratifying States. Under international law, the right to food is a recognized human right, with corresponding governmental obligations.

However, the right to food is not the right to be fed. Rather, the right to food is essentially concerned with the right to feed oneself, either by earning a living and purchasing food, or by growing food directly. The right also includes a focus on freedom from hunger. Governments’ related obligations are to protect, respect and fulfill the right – including by not interfering with individuals’ abilities to feed themselves and by protecting those abilities from third-party interference. This can have significant implications for policy design and government action, but is not necessarily about handing out food.

For years, the United States was an outlier on the global stage, and isolated in refusing to recognize the right to food in international declarations. However, even the U.S. stance has changed, and the United States has now joined multiple UN Declarations recognizing the right to food. The ABA resolution is thus aligned with the U.S.’s position at the international level, as well as with consensus that exists within the international community as found in international law.

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