UNITED NATIONS - The right to food - a basic human right protected by international law - is being breached by rich nations that have failed to honor their commitments to help eradicate world hunger and starvation, says a U.N. report released here.
Despite promises and pledges made at three major international conferences
on food since 1974, about 36 million people are still dying from hunger directly
or indirectly every year, Jean Siegler, special rapporteur of the U.N.
Commission on Human Rights, said Monday.
Siegler, who authored the 15-page report, says that millions of people continue to suffer from hunger or are driven to early death from starvation and chronic malnourishment.
''Every seven seconds a child under 10 years of age dies from the direct or indirect effects of hunger. Malnutrition handicaps children for life - brain cells do not develop, bodies are stunted, and blindness and diseases become rife.''
All this happens, he says, in a world that is richer than ever before and already produces more than enough food to feed the global population. ''Hunger is not a question of fate; hunger is the result of human action or inaction,'' he adds.
A 1974 World Food Conference pledged to eradicate hunger within a decade. But that goal was never met.
In 1996, a World Food Summit pledged to halve world hunger by 2015. Six years
later, there are still about 815 million hungry people today, according to the
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In June 2002, a second World Food Summit was held to review progress made in the 1996 summit. ''However, the clearest and shocking conclusion of the 2002 summit was that little progress has been made in meeting this goal,'' Siegler said.
And at the current slow rate of progress, it will take until at least 2030 to meet the goal of halving world hunger, he added.
In all three conferences, member states also acknowledged the right to food as a basic human right, and agreed to draft a set of voluntary guidelines aimed at the realization of that right.
But Siegler argues that if the concept of the right to food can be strengthened through this process, ''then governments will increasingly be held accountable for the promises they make at international summits, as taking action to reduce hunger becomes a legal obligation, not simply a policy choice''.
In many countries, particularly in Africa, the situation is deteriorating, rather than improving. At least 16 countries in Africa currently face food emergencies.
According to Siegler, serious famine or severe food shortages are already occurring
in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Angola. Over the last six years, hunger
has also increased in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, North Korea, Tanzania and Uganda.
The World Food Programme (WFP), said last month that a major food crisis exists in southern Africa. The number of people who will suffer food shortages ahead of next year's harvest has risen from 12.8 million in May to 14.4 million, said WFP head James T. Morris.
In every country visited, a U.N. team was confronted by ''a devastating mix of extreme hunger and severe shortcomings in agriculture, health, sanitation and institutional capacity,'' Morris added.
In mid-July, the WFP appealed for 611 million dollars in food and non-food support for southern Africa. But to date, Western donors have confirmed only 36 percent of the requested food aid.
The food situation is also grave in Argentina, El Salvador, parts of Guatemala,
and the small states of the Cook Islands and Tonga.
Siegler says that access to land and agrarian reform are key strategies to ensure the right to food.
He points out that agrarian reform should be taken seriously as a policy instrument to reduce hunger and poverty. In many countries, agrarian reform and the right to land are already provided for in national law, which then needs to be effectively applied and enforced.
Siegler sees ''profound contradictions'' in the actions of some states that invoke free trade in agriculture as the key to reducing hunger, while at the same time increasingly protect their own agriculture.
The rich countries of Western Europe, which belong to the Organization of Economic
Cooperation for Development (OECD), received 335 billion dollars in agricultural
subsidies in 1998.
And in May 2002, the United States announced a package that would increase agricultural subsidies to its farmers by 180 billion dollars over the next 10 years.
''It is clear that these actions contribute to the profound inequities within the current international trading system, with severe impacts on the realization of the right to food, particularly in developing countries,'' Siegler said.
© 2002 IPS