Tackling malnutrition: a human rights issue

14 May 2019 | Policy

Wenche Barth Eide is an emerita at the University of Oslo in the Department of Nutrition; she also coordinates the interdisciplinary Food, Human Rights and Corporations Research and Action Network based at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law.

There is broad agreement that malnutrition in all its forms is, to a large extent, rooted in malfunctioning food supply systems and local food environments failing to secure an opportunity for composing a healthy diet. There is less agreement about the underlying causes of this situation. Who should set criteria for healthy food environments to halt the worldwide rise in obesity and its role in the development of cancer and other non-communicable diseases?

Many processes and actors contribute to shaping food environments – states, private sector corporations, civil society organisations and consumers themselves. Their relative influence can be significant. We know that when public health nutrition goals are suppressed by commercial profit motives, this also reflects unequal power to carry them through, leading to unproductive conflicts of interest. Misleading and aggressive marketing of junk food aimed at children is a case in point.

The World Health Organization has addressed how to prevent and manage conflicts of interest between state and non-state actors in nutrition policy development and implementation of nutrition programmes at a country level. Several principles are proposed for a successful engagement by UN Member States with non-state actors, including corporations in the food sector. Among these are that such engagements should be coherent with policies and objectives related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and conform with internationally recognised human rights standards that the Member States have committed themselves to.

A rights-based approach to the Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs are widely accepted and most actors at least pretend to orient their activities towards the different targets set. The related international human rights system is too little known to too many, and therefore highly under-utilised in public health nutrition policies and implementation. Yet the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, from which the SDGs are developed, establishes a human rights value platform for processes to reach the 17 goals.

A rights-based approach to development action builds on commitments already made by the majority of Member States to respect, protect and promote all human rights as they have been concretised in different binding human rights conventions following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948: civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights, which include the right to adequate food and the right to the highest attainable health – from which one can legitimately also derive a right to adequate nutrition.

Business and human rights

Since 2011 there are also the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGP) which stipulate how businesses are responsible for respecting all human rights, including those to adequate food and to health. To respect implies that businesses must systematically assess the risk that some of their practices may negatively impact on certain human rights. Normally such due diligence is routinely performed by companies to assess risks to their profit – here the focus is on people potentially affected. This may be through child labour, workers’ conditions, or as here:  impact by food businesses on the human right to adequate food and the right to the highest attainable health, especially diet-related health.

Governments and the obligation to protect

The UN assembly proclaims a decade of action on nutritionUN Photo/Manuel Elias

The UNGP also underlines States Parties’ commitments to the obligation to protect. We have just entered the fourth year of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016-2025, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on 1 April 2016. It is time that we start making systematic use of the international human rights norms and principles to lever a human rights-based approach to action on nutrition. But where to begin?

A conference aimed to clarify the meaning and implications of such an approach was held in April 2018 at the University of Oslo under the title Can a human rights-based approach accelerate the reduction of undernutrition and obesity?  And by way of example, in December 2018 the Norwegian Cancer Society alerted Norwegian health authorities to their omission to fulfil Norway’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children from negative effects of unhealthy food marketing by stronger regulations.

At the global level, work has started by the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to draft a set of Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. While the earlier Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Adequate Food of 2004 was a milestone in boosting the interest in a human rights-based approach to food security, the rights dimensions now seem to have gone into hibernation. An opening for reawakening them is provided, among others, by the Committee’s Civil Society Mechanism (CFS-CSM) which tries its best to remind Member States about their earlier human rights commitments. These ought to be substantially reflected in the new Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition.

Besides action by Member States, the CFS-CSM deserves full support from all civil society stakeholders in this endeavour in the further process until finalisation of the guidelines at the end of 2020.

Wenche Barth Eide | 14 May 2019