UN distorting human rights yet again

The so-called "Right to Food" allows even totalitarian regimes to present themselves as deeply committed to human rights – just not the ones that really matter

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UN Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter

Predictably, the visit to Canada by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter has become a partisan political football, demonstrating clearly that most such “social and economic rights” are not objective and workable standards by which to measure how governments treat their citizens.

It is the first visit to a developed country by the Special Rapporteur, and some have objected that numerous other states deserve attention instead. UN critic Hillel Neuer has pointed out that De Schutter will also be looking into obesity in Canada, a strange concern for an “expert” on world hunger.

Many others have lauded the visit, noting inter alia that a high percentage of people in Canada’s remote northern communities lack adequate access to nutritious food.  There has reportedly been a rise in the use of food banks, with 850,000 citizens using them each month.  And here is a shock: good quality food in Canada is more expensive than packaged, fast food, and especially hard to get in the far north.

De Schutter’s visit is being ruthlessly exploited by critics of the conservative government who blame its policies on the “hunger crisis in Canada.”   

Bob Rae, the leader of the Liberal Party, is using the visit to bludgeon the government of Stephen Harper, stating that "[T]he fact that Canada is now the first developed country to be investigated by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is nothing short of a failure for the Harper Conservatives."

He blamed the government for cutting funds for the national child care program and for health programs for Canada’s Aboriginal population, and for the lack of a “national poverty strategy,” all of which Rae claims have led to a decline in “food security” in Canada.

The event has unleashed numerous calls for a “National Food Policy” that will ensure respect for the “Right to Food.” These have invariably seen the answer in more central planning and more government support based on redistribution.

De Schutter, a Belgian law professor, said he intends to “examine food systems as  whole,”  an indication not only of his naivety, but also his hubris. It is not surprising given that De Schutter recently claimed in a Guardian article that “we can overcome the problems of delivering collective action on climate change by treating mining, deforestation, ocean degradation and more as violations of human rights.”

In making such claims, and advocating for a particular kind of government policy to address hunger, De Schutter is violating a central moral obligation of international human rights advocacy, which is to be scrupulously politically neutral and nonpartisan.

His position has clearly played into the hands of one side of a partisan ideological controversy in Canada.  When human rights demands partake of partisanship, they lose their credibility and they alienate those who disagree.

They betray the ideal of universal human rights that are relevant to all.  One can only imagine the reactions of Canada’s left wing had De Schutter come with ideas such as reducing taxes and reducing regulation to stimulate economic growth as a strategy for improving access to food through greater production and wealth.

And presumably, conservative politicians would not have been able to resist using such recommendations for their own political advantage.

Indeed, any conceivable recommendations for reducing poverty and hunger in Canada will be essentially political recommendations to be considered and decided in a democratic contest by the citizens themselves.

International officials have no business inserting their ideological biases into such debates.

But when one’s mandate is the intrinsically political question of the “right to food,” it is inevitable.

De Schutter’s previous reports, following visits to countries  such as China and Syria, clearly demonstrate how the never ending expansion of the concept of human rights dilutes the protection against authoritarian and arbitrary oppression.

After all, emphasizing the need for “the promotion of diverse and balanced diets” is hardly the most pressing human rights concern in China, where crack downs on internet freedom, the arbitrary detention of dissidents, and torture are all to frequent. In Syria, De Schutter met with a number of ministers and other high level officials “in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue.”

No doubt the Syrian regime, which now massacres thousands of its own citizens, would have been less forthcoming if De Schutter had been in the country to monitor its record on torture, extra judicial killings and forced disappearances, human rights violations that –unlike hunger and malnutrition-- Assad’s regime could promptly end if they wished.

But discussing the Right to Food allows even totalitarian regimes to present themselves as deeply committed to human rights – just not the ones that really matter for securing basic freedom and the rule of law. 

Mr. Rhodes is former director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and co-founder of the newly formed Freedom Rights Project. Mr. Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the CEPOS think-tank in Copenhagen and co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project

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