UNITED NATIONS - Since hunger and famine are still widespread in parts of Africa and Asia, the international community is in violation of the right to food as a basic universal human right, according to a new study released by the United Nations.
"Despite promises to eradicate hunger, there has been little progress in reducing the global number of victims of hunger," said Jean Ziegler, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report.
More than 852 million people -- about 13 percent of the world population -- do not have enough food each day to sustain a healthy life, according to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture organization (FAO).
Of this, about 815 million people live in developing countries, 28 million in "transition" countries of the former Eastern Europe and ex-Soviet republics, and about nine million in the industrialised world.
"It is a shame on humanity that in a world that is richer than ever before, six million children due of malnutrition and related illnesses before they reach the age of five," Ziegler said.
The study, which goes before the current 61st session of the General Assembly, points out that the majority of the hungry live in Asia and Africa, while about 80 percent live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and pastoralism to survive.
"They are hungry because they do not have enough work, or access to productive resources like and water sufficient to feed their families," it says.
In a statement released Monday to commemorate both World Food Day and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the world has the resources and the know-how to make hunger history. "What we need is political will and resolve," he said.
Annan also said that a decade after world leaders pledged at the World Food Summit to halve the number of chronically undernourished by 2015, "the number has actually increased".
Ziegler's study says that all human beings have the right to live in dignity, free from hunger. "The right to food is a human right," it stresses.
He also criticizes the "current massive under-funding" of U.N. programs, especially in Darfur (Sudan), the Sahel (including Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad) and the Horn of Africa (including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya) as "unacceptable".
Outside of Africa, hunger and food shortages are also affecting countries such as Afghanistan and North Korea.
"All governments have a responsibility to respond to urgent (U.N.) appeals in relation to food crises," says Ziegler.
Frederic Mousseau, a food security consultant for international relief organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Action Against Hunger, says the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war state that victims of conflict, like the millions of displaced people in Darfur, must receive adequate food assistance.
"The international community has a legal obligation to provide emergency assistance in such a situation. Unfortunately, this form of assistance is commonly under-funded in most conflict zones," Mousseau told IPS.
Often the U.N.'s World Food program (WFP) has to cut food rations by half or delay distribution because of this lack of funding, he added.
"This is unacceptable because people who have lost their land or their job have no other option than to rely on external assistance for their survival," said Mousseau, co-author of a new report "Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation?" published by the San Francisco-based Oakland Institute.
In the case of Sahel and the Horn of Africa, which -- apart from Somalia -- are not countries at war, the problem is much wider.
On the one hand, he said, there is under-funding of relief assistance. For example the eight-month delay by the donor countries during the food crisis in Niger in 2005 resulted in 3.6 million people being starved.
"But more important we need to examine factors that lead to such severe food crises," Mousseau said.
One of the primary reasons has been the absence of development policies geared toward providing support for rural development and small-scale farmers to ensure long-term food security.
Many countries have also been prevented by the donor countries and international financial institutions from implementing economic and trade policies that would support local producers and their markets, which could prevent a country from facing widespread hunger and destitution, Mousseau added.
In his study, Ziegler points out that "dumping" of overproduced food at cheap prices "must not be permitted when it displaces livelihoods, especially in countries where the majority of the population still depend on agriculture for security their right to food".
Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, said that with its own subsidies intact, the United States dumps cheap subsidised food into developing nations, ravaging the livelihoods of small farmers.
For example, she said, Mexico has been growing corn for 10,000 years. But under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was supposed to level the playing field, Mexico opened its markets to imports from the United States, including corn.
"Mexican farmers, mostly operating small-scale family farms, were unable to compete against giant U.S. corn producers," Mittal told IPS. These corn producers are the largest single recipient of U.S. government subsidies -- 10.1 billion dollars, or some 10 times the total Mexican agricultural budget in 2000.
Not surprisingly, then, U.S. corn exports to Mexico have tripled, and they account for almost one-third of the domestic Mexican market, leading to an acute crisis in the Mexican corn sector.
She pointed out that dumping of cheap subsidised corn into Mexico has reduced real prices of Mexican corn by more than 70 percent.
The result is that millions of poor farmers have been displaced from their land.
In 1997, she said, 47 percent of the Mexican population was engaged in agriculture, according to figures released by FAO. By 2010, that number will have dropped to 18 percent, the organization estimates.
On the human right to food, Mittal said that 10 years ago, at the World Food Summit, 186 heads of state declared their goal to reduce the number of hungry (815 million) by half by 2015. Today, FAO estimates that over 852 million people are chronically malnourished.
"As long as hunger is not seen as a silent massacre that is responsible for the death of millions around the world each year, until hunger is not seen as a violation of human rights, we will not see a dent in hunger," she warned.
As the Oakland Institute's new report, "Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation", shows, the right to food and to be free from hunger is not a new concept in international law. It has been recognised and affirmed at the international level in several international human rights documents.
It is, however, very important to highlight 2004 FAO guidelines that recognise that international conditions, including free trade and the structural adjustment policies, can seriously influence nations' capacity to ensure the right to food to their citizens, she added.
For example, Niger's ability to challenge food insecurity and realise human rights was and is threatened by agricultural trade liberalisation, privatisation of state agricultural agencies and services, and reduction of import and export tariffs in response to conditions imposed by creditors at international financial institutions -- primarily the World Bank and International Monetary Fund -- and commitments made at the World Trade organization and other trade agreements, Mittal declared.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service