The United States and the Right to Food

For many years, the United States was conspicuously isolated on the world stage when it came to its stance on the right to food. Despite near-universal agreement that the right to food was a human right, the United States refused to join even non-binding resolutions on the subject. Some of its reticence could be traced back to the evolution of the modern human rights regime, which developed after World War II. During heightened Cold War tensions, a fractured international community created a fractured set of human rights, with the United States and its allies focusing on civil and political rights, and the Soviet Union and its allies focusing on economic and social rights (such as the right to food).

Yet even after the Cold War ended, and despite widespread consensus at the international level that human rights are indivisible and interrelated, the United States has maintained its distance from economic, social and cultural rights, and particularly from the right to food. At the domestic level, critics have argued that the right to food is not protected by the U.S. Constitution and does not fit with American culture. At the international level, the United States spent years steadfastly arguing against it. As recently as 2008, during the last year of the Bush Administration, the United States continued its opposition:  it was the only country to vote against a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution on the right to food, opposing 184 countries that voted in favor of it.

Under the Obama Administration, the United States has begun to change its tune on the international stage. In 2009, the United States, for the first time, joined a non-binding UN Declaration on the right to food (though it noted that doing so did not change customary international law on the right to food). Every year since then, the United States has joined consensus on similar right-to-food declarations, while issuing supplemental Explanations of Position that point to areas of disagreement. The United States’ new position, which remains on fragile footing, has thus shifted, a step towards ending its unique estrangement from the concept of the human right to food.

How does the United States’ story fit into evolving norms on the right to food, and what can we say about the right to food in the United States? From a pragmatic perspective, can the right to food make a difference in efforts to fight hunger and entrenched poverty among Americans? (This is a particularly timely question as Congress considers even greater cuts to the food stamp program.)

Last week, I was privileged to speak on a panel at Hunter College focused on these questions. I joined three leaders whom I greatly respect:  Christophe Golay, who spent years working as an Adviser to the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and who now works at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights; Smita Narula, who teaches at NYU School of Law and has been one of the leading legal thinkers on the right to food; and Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. The entire panel discussion, including the question-and-answer session, can be viewed here.

All three panelists have worked tirelessly on different aspects of hunger, and all have written useful articles or books as well. If you’re seeking additional resources on the right to food or hunger in the United States, I’d recommend the following selected works from Christophe, Smita, and Joel:


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