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Food & Water

Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
Assistance, Protection and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources


Food and water are essential elements that all human beings must have access to in order to live. Access to "the minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe" as well as "sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water" are considered human rights. Hunger, malnutrition and starvation are global problems. Hunger is the condition of a person who does not have access to enough food. Malnutrition is caused by hunger, poor food quality, and disease. Although a person might be consuming the appropriate number of calories daily, he/she may still be missing vital nutrients in his/her diet. Malnutrition can cause additional diseases and certain diseases are known to cause malnutrition. Realizing the right to adequate food means eliminating hunger, malnutrition and starvation.

Governments are responsible for providing access to adequate food to eliminate hunger, malnutrition and starvation. The right to food is directly addressed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). In article 11, governments

"recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food… and the continuous improvement of living conditions."

Governments must assure citizens of accessibility, availability and security of food and water. Availability is the very presence of food or means of production of food in a community or household; this includes a water source. Accessibility is the ability of the people to actually obtain the available food and resources; in many countries accessibility is more of a problem than the actual availability. Security means that food and water are always available and accessible to the population, both in the present and for future generations.

What are the main causes of food shortages and malnutrition?

People living in poverty have limited access to food. For many malnutrition is the result of a lack of financial means to purchase enough food. Those who live in poverty may not have access to land on which to produce their own food. Within families living in poverty, women and children may have less access to food than men.

The disruption of food production or distribution is another major cause of hunger and malnutrition. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods or tornados, may halt or disrupt food production, shipping or marketing and result in food shortages. Manmade disasters, including war, often limit food accessibility because they disrupt regular movement and distribution of food. During conflicts food can be used as a weapon; withholding food from civilian populations intentionally causes starvation.

Who is at the greatest risk of suffering from hunger and malnutrition?

Children under the age of five are most vulnerable to malnutrition. The World Health Organization (WHO) links malnutrition to at least half of the approximately ten million child deaths that occur every year. Younger children are more susceptible to disease resulting from malnutrition and they also experience irreversible physical and mental damage that affects them throughout their lifetimes.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) addresses the need for adequate food, and directly calls for the inclusion of clean drinking water in consideration of the health and nutritional well-being of the child.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that there are close to 800 million malnourished people globally.

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Rights at Stake

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 25, paragraph 1) determines that

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

Every human being has:

  • the right: to be free from hunger;
  • the right to adequate food;
  • the right to clean, safe drinking water.

There are many other rights that are closely related to, and in many cases cannot be separated from the right to adequate food:

  • the right to enjoy the highest standard of physical and mental health. This right is unattainable without adequate food and clean water.
  • The right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress. There are many scientific developments regarding food and clean water.
  • The right to freedom from discrimination. This addresses the concern that under some circumstances food distribution is not equal between genders or age groups.

The United Nations General Comment 12 clarifies the rights related to food in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights:

"The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement." (paragraph 6)

The right to adequate food imposes three types or levels of obligations on States parties: the obligations to respect, to protect and to fulfill (paragraph 15):

Respect: The state must recognize that all human beings have the right to adequate food, and therefore are entitled to have access to it. In respecting this right the ruling body of the state will not in any way prevent a person from obtaining the food he/she needs.

Protect: The ruling body of the state has to not only make sure that they themselves do not interfere with or prohibit a person’s access to adequate food, but must also protect their population from access prohibition implemented by another party.

Fulfill: In order to fulfill the food needs of the population the state must both facilitate and provide for the people. Facilitation and provision are the long and short-term solutions to food shortages and malnutrition. To facilitate, the government must begin to implement programs that will lead to food security. To establish food security, the state must ensure that people have the means to be self-sufficient. This can include educating people on the most efficient use of resources, reform and/or redistribution of arable land (land fit to be cultivated), or employment to give people the monetary means to purchase food. Through facilitation the state is making sure that food is accessible through a variety of avenues that still allow independence and choice in food selection and procurement. The obligation to provide should be reserved for emergency situations when all other options have been exhausted. In this case the government will give people food directly.

Similar obligations are stated in General Comment 15 in relation to the right to water.

The countries that ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights agreed that:

"Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures." (article 2 paragraph 1)

Certain, particularly vulnerable groups enjoy specific rights to adequate food and safe water:

Prisoners must be regularly provided with food of nutritional value as well as drinking water upon request.

Women have the right to breastfeed their babies, and infants have the right to be breastfed. Women have the right to receive pre and post-natal health care.

Children have the right to nutritious food and clean drinking water, as well as to be free of suffering from disease and malnutrition caused by inaccessibility of the above.

Refugees should be provided the same public relief as the nationals of the country they take refuge in.

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International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is "signed" by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

The binding treaties can be used to force governments to respect the treaty provisions that are relevant for the human right to adequate food and water. The non-binding instruments, such as declarations and resolutions, can be used in relevant situations to embarrass governments by negative public exposure; governments who care about their international image may consequently adapt their policies.

The following are the international treaties, declarations and commitments that address the human right to adequate food and water:


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (article 3, 21, 23, 25)
The Universal Declaration not only asserts the human right to life, but also an adequate standard of living. This standard includes the right to food. Each person is also entitled to public services and social security.

Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955) (article 20)
Recognizes prisoners’ rights to food and water provisions.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (article 1,3,11,12)
This treaty recognizes that "in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence." It requires states to take all steps within their ability to realize the rights set forth in the treaty. The treaty asserts that men and women should have equal realization of all rights. The treaty defines the right of all people to an adequate standard of living, including food, and the right to be free from hunger. The treaty commits states to developing specific programs and obligations to the people to ensure these rights. In the treaty, states are obligated to work toward reducing infant and child mortality and disease control.

To more fully elaborate on the strategies for implementation of the rights set forth in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights -- the monitoring body of the Covenant -- drafted:

General Comment 12 (twentieth session 1999)
The GC12 defines the right to adequate food and what must be done to ensure that the nutritional needs of every man, woman and child are met. In doing so, the GC12 articulates the specific obligations of the state in helping people realize this right. The GC12 is the most comprehensive and complete document addressing the human right to food.

General Comment 15 (twenty-ninth session 2002)
The GC15 specifically addresses the human right to water, by acknowledging water as an absolute necessity for the attainment of an adequate standard of living. This is due to the fact that water is essential for survival and absolutely irreplaceable.

Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II) (1977) (article 14)
This protocol is part of humanitarian law, which protects people in situations of armed conflict. Article 14 prohibits "starvation of civilians as a method of combat".

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) (article 24)
This treaty was drafted to identify and protect the best interests of the child. Article 24 of the treaty that recognizes "the right of the child to the highest attainable standard of health" is immensely important. State parties commit to taking steps toward ending child and infant mortality, and eliminate the circumstances that lead to child death including illness and malnutrition. Governments must provide children with food and water security. This treaty ties the rights of the mother to the well being of the child. Article 24 acknowledges the mother’s right to appropriate pre and post-natal health care, as well as access to information and education regarding child health and nutrition, the advantages of breastfeeding, hygiene and environmental sanitation.

Innocenti Declaration on the Protection, Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding (1990)
This declaration asserts that women have the right to breastfeed their babies, and infants from birth to 4-6 months have the right to be breastfed.

World Declaration and Plan of Action on Nutrition (1992)
This declaration promotes food security and disease prevention for infants through support of breastfeeding.

Rome Declaration on World Food Security (1996)
This declaration recognized the need to establish world food security. The participating heads of state reaffirmed "the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger." Following this affirmation the heads of state committed "an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015."

World Food Summit Plan of Action (1996)
The Plan of Action is comprised of seven commitments made by participating states to begin reducing the number of undernourished people in the world. Objective 7.4 of the plan calls for clarification and implementation of the right to adequate food in the CESCR.

The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food was appointed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2000. It is the Special Rapporteur’s job to receive information on violations of the right to food and identify emerging issues related to the right to food, including the right to clean drinking water. The Special Rapporteur visits countries, and makes reports to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and General Assembly every year. There is a Research Unit on the Right to Food that supports the Special Rapporteur with research and reports.

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African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) (article 14)
This treaty commits state parties to realizing, to the best of their ability and with all available resources, the child’s right to health, nutrition and safe water.


European Code of Social Security
(1964) (article 42)
This article ensures the provision of food to children. Addendum 1 (Division 5) stipulates that states will provide water and sanitary services.


Charter of the Organization of American States (1948) (article 34)
This article guarantees access to proper nutrition by increasing production and availability, and diversifying production.

Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador) (1988) (article 12)
Recognizes the human right to adequate nutrition. States must take steps to increase food supply through improved production and distribution.

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Assistance, Protection and Service Agencies

National Agencies

The international treaties that specifically address the human right to food and water are widely ratified; however few states specify these rights within their own constitutions. Looking at access to adequate food and water from a rights perspective is a more recent phenomenon, and it therefore makes sense that these rights would be articulated in a newer constitution, like that of South Africa, which was drafted in 1996.

Many states do have legislation and national programs relating to food, but few establish any clear right to adequate food. To ensure the safety of the food people are consuming, governments have agencies responsible for adopting and monitoring necessary food standards and quality control. In the United States, for example, it is required that people receive an annual report informing them of all substances found in their tap water, along with the Environmental Protection Agency’s established level of safe consumption.

Governments fulfill their obligation to provide through social security and feeding programs such as food stamps, emergency food assistance, and school meal plans. These programs exist to ensure food security, and in the case of school meal plans, adequate nutrition for the health of the child. Eligibility for such programs depends on low family income. In some cases funding goes to public and private agencies, non-profit and community organizations that are working to combat hunger on a state or community level. In order to receive funding these agencies must exhibit strong commitment as well as evidence of a successful aid program.

Foodfirst Information and Action Network. Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) is an NGO that works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. FIAN receives and researches right to food violation claims. FIAN will intervene in cases of violations of the right to food. In doing so, FIAN holds governments accountable for ensuring the violation is rectified, and publicizes the violations. FIAN drafted and proposed that the UN adopt a Code of Conduct on the Right to Food.

International Assistance Agencies

The following are leading organizations committed to human rights, especially access to food and water:

World Health Organization. The World Health Organization (WHO) was established in 1948 as a branch of the UN specifically committed to promote good health. The WHO’s Constitution states the agency's objective as to help "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health." There are 192 states represented in the governing body of the WHO, the World Health Assembly. Since good nutrition is imperative in the attainment of good health, hunger, water and nutrition issues are a large concern of WHO.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was founded in 1945 to raise nutrition standards and the standard of living globally. There are 183 member countries of the FAO, dedicated to providing services such as technical assistance projects; nutrition, food, agriculture, forestry and fishery information; agricultural and development planning. The Committee for Food Security (CFS) is responsible for monitoring member states’ level of commitment of and follow through with the World Food Summit Plan of Action of 1996.

United Nations Children’s Fund. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is the UN agency dedicated to protecting the rights of the child. UNICEF has implemented specific programs to improve child nutrition, water quality environment and sanitation. UNICEF works to improve nutrition standards by forming community based programs that supply information and education, as well as emergency care to women and children.

World Food Program. The World Food Program (WFP) was established in 1963. The WFP is the UN agency that provides food aid and relief to victims of natural and manmade disasters.

International Fund for Agricultural Development. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) branch of the UN was established in 1977 as a direct result of the 1974 World Food Conference. IFAD was created to provide the means to implement rural agricultural development projects. The fund provides loans and grants to help small, struggling agriculturists stabilize, develop and help themselves.

International Committee of the Red Cross. The independent and neutral entity of The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a humanitarian organization that assists and protects victims of war. ICRC provides medical care to victims and also arrange exchanges of family messages. The ICRC provides protection and assistance to civilians, supervise visits to detainees, medical assistance, food aid and restoration of family links between persons separated by war.

CARE International. CARE is a non-governmental organization with a mission to reduce world poverty. CARE’s work includes programs that address issues that exacerbate poverty and attempt to identify sustainable solutions. They help families increase food production and proper management of resources, teach techniques and practices that help prevent malnutrition, provide food for relief in emergency situations and build and maintain clean water and sanitation systems.

Save the Children. Save the Children is a non-governmental organization that tries to fix the root causes of food insecurity to prevent hunger and malnutrition through increase in agricultural production, education and distribution of food in emergencies.

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Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

For advocates

Nutrition Rights: The Human Right to Adequate Food and Nutrition (by George Kent, World Alliance on Nutrition and Human Rights/University of Hawai'i)
The purpose of this text is to help readers understand the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights through study of the human right to food and nutrition. The text can be used for self-directed learning, in a training or classroom.

The Right to Adequate Food (in: Circle of Rights. Economic, Social & Cultural Rights Activism A Training Resource, International Human Rights Internship Program/Forum-Asia).
This module provides an overview of the right to food. It identifies international standards related to the right to food, discusses the right to adequate food, analyzes the relationship of the right to food to other rights, considers states’ obligations under international and national law, and addresses implementation and enforcement mechanisms.

For teachers

"Mignonette" (in: First Steps: A Manual for Starting Human Rights Education, Amnesty International-International Secretariat).
A one-hour lesson plan based on a morally complex story about the right to life will help students to think about how rights work out in practice. It also links well with activities about conflict.

World Food Day (by Richard Pierre Claude in: Popular Education for Human Rights: 24 Participatory Exercises for Facilitators and Teachers, HREA)
Exercise for a workshop setting about World Food Day (16 October). Participants will learn how to differentiate between "wants" and "needs"; distinguish among: hunger, malnutrition, and starvation; develop some perspectives on global hunger, including the ranking of several countries; develop some comparative skills in analyzing the causes of hunger in your country; devise some policies to respond to issues of hunger, taking "globalization" into account.

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Other Resources

Courses and training opportunities

World Food Day (16 October)

Organisations that promote and protect the right to food & water




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Key terms

Hunger - describes the condition of a person who is unable to access or consume enough food to meet daily caloric needs. Sustained over a long period of time, hunger leads to death by starvation

Malnutrition - a condition characterized by inadequate intake of protein, energy, and micronutrients, and increased vulnerability to frequent infection or disease

Food security - physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times

Agricultural development - strategies that optimize productive output of land to better meet food needs of the population. Agrarian reform measures broaden accessibility of land to include more people

This guide was developed by Eva Hathaway.

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