How to bring human rights more clearly into the UN Food Systems Summit

Published on 19 July 2021

Jody Harris

Research Fellow

This year’s UN Food Systems Summit aims to address the complex and contested challenge of creating healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. But the Summit has been criticised for failing to integrate human rights. New research points to three distinct aspects of human rights that have major implications for the UN Summit’s governance.

The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in 2021 has adopted the grand challenge of delivering progress on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. Every country has populations that are affected by malnutrition in its different forms, and one third of all people in the world are malnourished – so addressing the health equity goal is huge and important.

Among approaches to address these issues, the language of human rights is notably present in key international food and nutrition strategies – but the Summit has been criticised for ignoring human rights framings and approaches, and called on to strengthen rights-based governance of the event and of food systems.

So, what would it mean in practice to take a stronger and clearer rights focus? Work we have undertaken over the past four years has shed light on this, and brings clarity that is sorely needed in advance of the Summit.

Interpretation of human rights

Through our work, we felt there was a need to better understand how human rights might shape nutrition action, in order to make better decisions about where to invest the energy of the community going forward. Our work explored empirically how a ‘right to nutrition’ (as intertwined with but different from a right to food) is perceived by different actors at global level, at Africa regional level, and at national level with a focus on Zambia.

At each level we analysed written policies and legislation, and interviewed experts from government, academia, legal and civil society sectors as well as 92 citizens in rural and urban Zambia, to understand how differences in interpretation of human rights might affect their potential for improving practice.

Mirroring the UNFSS debates, our work found that there are clear differences in how people interpret what human rights are – both across levels from global to local, and across sectors from law to development. Broadly though, our work showed that there are three distinct aspects to the ways that human rights are understood and used, and a far as we know this tripartite structure has not been made clear in previous work on nutrition (or more broadly in food systems):

  • Rights as rhetorical, playing a normative function in setting the tone and providing legitimacy and a strong moral basis for advocacy;
  • Rights as legal, as a potential enforcement mechanism, albeit one that tends towards a narrower focus as enforcement gets stronger, and one that is not accessible to many as it stands; and
  • Rights as practical, acknowledging context as critical to rights action, and calling for strengthening of rights education, participation and accountability.

These aspects came out clearly across our research, and we argue that explicitly acknowledging the existence of these rhetorical, legal and practical functions of human rights is an important first step, whatever perspective you come from originally. Crucially, addressing these three aspects of rights all together – instead of by very separate constituencies as happens now – is fundamental to a coherent rights-based approach.

These three aspects of human rights – the rhetoric, the law, and the practice – will play out differently in different contexts both international and national, but they are critical faces of human rights that should be considered together in the achievement of a right nutrition – and beyond.

Going beyond human rights rhetoric at the UNFSS

For the UN Food Systems Summit, this has a major implication. While continuing to use the rhetoric of rights as a call to action for more and better food systems work, we need to acknowledge that using rhetoric alone is not using the full potential of human rights, with legislative and regulatory routes and genuine participation and accountability equally crucial aspects.

This understanding needs to be integrated into the Summit governance, and into the set of actions that the Summit considers – and this requires including a broader set of evidence (from legal and political to social and anthropological) among the economics and technology focus of the Summit so far.

Human rights are not the only framing of what is just and ethical in the world – but they are the framing adopted by the UN. This UN Food Systems Summit must build on seventy-five years of UN work on human rights in re-framing food systems as just and equitable. New insight such as our work provides can guide practical ways forward for the Summit leaders and everyone involved.


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Food Equity Centre

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