Food, education, health, housing, and work

Chapter 7
Food, education, health, housing, and work

‘Human rights begin with breakfast’: this quip from the former President of Senegal, Léopold Senghor, prompts many to react in alarm. Some see this assertion as part of an argument that certain rights, such as the right to food, need to be properly secured before one can turn to the luxury of the right to vote or to the privilege of freedom of expression. Indeed, many subscribe to a so-called ‘full belly thesis’, according to which subsistence rights to food and water have to be secured before turning to civil and political rights relating to political participation, arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, or privacy. Such argumentation is not as prevalent as it used to be (at least in government circles). Today all governments accept (most of the time) that there should be no prioritization among different types of rights. Different types of rights are seen to be mutually reinforcing: better nutrition, health and education will lead to improvements in political freedoms and the rule of law; similarly, freedom of expression and association can ensure that the best decisions are taken to protect rights to food, health, and work. Despite the logic of such a desire to secure ‘all rights for all people’, traditional assumptions about what constitute ‘proper’ human rights still persist. One does not have to look very far to find voices claiming that the rights we are discussing in this next chapter are not really human rights (see Box 27). Such an approach probably conceals a sense that such rights get in the way of rational choice and economic efficiency. Alternatively, those who wish to confine human rights to issues such as torture and freedom of expression may have simply underestimated how much we now care about poverty and disease, not only when it affects us – but also when it affects other people.

Box 27: The Economist, 18 August 2001, ‘Righting Wrongs’

Designating a good as a universal human right means that reasonable people believe that under no jurisdiction, and under no circumstances, may that good be justly denied to anybody. Although freedom from torture certainly now falls into this category – arguably due to the efforts of groups like Amnesty – goods such as food and a decent home do not. Governments may intentionally torture their citizens; they do not usually intentionally inflict on them poverty and ill-health. The moral imperative to stop poverty or disease is therefore not as convincing as the moral imperative to stop torture.

The traditional narrow reading of human rights is, today, rarely explicitly defended in international relations. The expression ‘human rights’ covers not only civil and political rights such as freedom from torture, slavery, and arbitrary detention, but also economic, social, and cultural rights. In the words of the Universal Declaration:

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.

International disagreement now concerns, first, the appropriate mechanisms for the enforcement of such rights, and second, the exact scope of these rights. Before turning to the interpretation of the scope of these rights, let us consider the perceived problem of enforcement.

A main concern is that economic and social policy is best determined by policy makers who are democratically accountable, and not by unelected judges with no specialized knowledge of how to prioritize the distribution of limited resources. In a context such as health, it is clear that health authorities and hospitals may have to deny some people treatment when this represents an unreasonable strain on limited resources. Those who support increasing the judicial enforcement of economic, social, and cultural rights point out that protecting civil and political rights also involves deciding questions with resource implications: the provision of humane conditions for detainees has resource implications; establishing the pre-conditions for truly free and fair elections likewise costs money. But there remains a tension regarding the appropriateness of economic and social rights for judicial enforcement. The result is that, in those instances when courts have adjudicated economic, social, and cultural rights, judges have been careful not to impinge overly on the roles of the legislature and executive. For example, the judiciary in South Africa has reminded the Government of its duty to justify restrictions on access to health care, and demanded that the Government develops policies to ensure housing for the most marginalized. As with civil and political rights, the judiciary may remind governments that they have duties to ensure that legislation is introduced to ensure that rights can be enjoyed and protected under an effective legal system. Let us now look at some economic and social rights in a little more detail.


The existence of the right to food does not mean that the government has to provide free food for all. The right to food is shorthand for a more complex set of obligations relating to ‘food security’ which involves ensuring access to food and planning for shortages and distribution problems. We can start with the immediate obligations. First, the government should avoid undermining food security and should plan for the needs of the population. In particular, there should be no violation of the right to food through the unjustified destruction of crops or evictions from land. Furthermore, there must be no discrimination with regard to access to food. These immediate obligations can be seen as part of a duty to respect the right to food.

A second level of obligation concerns the duty to protect the right to food. Here we find obligations to protect individuals from interference with their right to food from other actors. So, for example, the state may have a duty to regulate with regard to food safety. In some contexts, this may require the state to guarantee that title to land is ensured to those who have a close cultural link to the land – such as indigenous peoples.

The third level is variously expressed as an obligation to fulfil, assist, facilitate, or provide. This means, on the one hand, strengthening access to food by ensuring that people have the resources for food security through stimulating employment, engaging in land reform, and developing transport and storage facilities. On the other hand, the state may have to provide food or social security to fulfil basic needs in the situations referred to in the Universal Declaration (cited above) in which the individual is subject to ‘unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’.

These international obligations have been developed in tandem with constitutional rights in some countries. Significant progress has been made through national civil society appeals to the right to food in public interest litigation before the Indian Supreme Court. Kamayani Bali Mahabal from the Centre for Enquiry into

Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT, the acronym, is Hindi for health) explains:

The Right to Food Campaign (the Campaign) operates on the premise that everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and under-nutrition. Realising this right requires not only equitable and sustainable food systems, but also a guarantee of livelihood security such as the right to work, land and social security. The Campaign pursues its goals through a wide range of activities, including initiating public hearings, action-orientated research, media advocacy and lobbying, as well as participating in public interest litigation on the right to food. In relation to the latter activity, the Campaign has a small ‘legal support group’ which handles Supreme Court hearings … Also, the ‘mid-day meal movement’ has continued to grow. According to official data, 50 million children now get a free school lunch, with another 50 million or so in the queue.

In recent years, considerable focus has been placed on the ‘right to water’ as water has come to be regarded as a part of a globalized services market. Often subsumed under the right to food, the right to water is increasingly raised in the context of privatization of public utilities, and in particular with regard to multinational companies which have been accused of pricing parts of the population out of the market, resulting in a denial of the right to water (see Box 28).


‘Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.’ This comment, attributed to the Member of Parliament and Lord Chancellor Baron Brougham (1778–1868), reminds us that education is essential to any effort to enhance human rights. In this sense, the right to education is crucial to empowering people to be able to enjoy their other rights. The right to education involves not only obligations to refrain from interfering with the right by closing schools, or discriminating against certain pupils, but also includes obligations to fulfil the right to education by providing compulsory, free primary education for all. The right to education has been developed at the doctrinal level to encompass what is known as a ‘4As’ approach: availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaptability. (Some might hear echoes here of the 3Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic.)

Box 28: J. Shultz, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’

No example illustrates the enduring power of a good story better than Cochabamba, Bolivia’s public revolt against privatisation of its water system. Here the evils of economic globalization, and the valiant fight against them, were played out in living color. The World Bank used all the powers at its disposal to pressure the Bolivian Government to lease off its water system to a transnational corporation and it did so, to a subsidiary of the powerful US-based, Bechtel Corporation. Within weeks Bechtel had doubled and tripled people’s water rates, sending a mass movement of urban and rural water users into the streets. This culminated in a weeklong general strike, the forced departure of the corporation and the return of the water system to public hands. In December 2001 Bechtal announced it was suing the Bolivian government for $25 million for breaking the water contract.

During the water wars, Tanya Paredes, a mother who supports her four children by knitting baby clothes, became an international symbol after it was reported that her 300-per-cent water bill increase totalled more than what it cost to feed her family for a week. Even people who have never heard of the World Bank and don’t have feelings one way or another towards Bechtel could grasp in an instant that something about globalization had gone horribly wrong.

First, education has to be available in a functional sense so that, in the words of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, there has to be: ‘protection from the elements, sanitation facilities for both sexes, safe drinking water, trained teachers receiving domestically competitive salaries, [and] teaching materials.’ The late UN expert Katerina Tomaševski pointed out that for availability to be meaningful, rather than formal, schools have actually to attract children. Not only must schools be formally open to both boys and girls, but they should be monitored to ensure that girls and boys are retained in school. Inadequate teaching or lack of relevant schoolbooks will mean that children and parents will see little point in using the available facilities, and the government will fail in its obligation to provide compulsory primary education that is available free to all.

Second, the state must ensure that schools and programmes are accessible to all. This has three dimensions. First, accessibility means non-discrimination. This is an obligation on states with immediate effect. Affirmative action, or ‘temporary special measures’, intended to bring about equality for men and women, or for disadvantaged groups, is not considered a violation of the non-discrimination rule as long as it does not continue unnecessarily. Discrimination against girls remains a real problem. For example, pregnancy can trigger girls being expelled from school in violation of their right to education. Furthermore, for some parents, it is seen as economically irrational to invest in their daughters’ education; they therefore privilege their boys’ education. The second dimension to accessibility is physical accessibility. This means that children with disabilities are not excluded due to the design of the buildings, and that education is within physical reach geographically. The third dimension is economic accessibility. While international law demands that education be free in the elementary and fundamental stages, there is a weaker obligation with regard to secondary education so that there should be a progression towards free secondary education. This means that, although priority is to be given to ensuring free primary education, governments must also take concrete steps to ensure free secondary and tertiary education.

Acceptability is the concept used to describe the importance of ensuring that education is conducted in a way that is acceptable to children and parents. The environment has to tackle not only material conditions, and aspects such as violence and scheduling, but it must also enable children to develop and learn. Corporal punishment in schools is a violation of the rights of the child, and bullying can be addressed in terms of human rights language which refers to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.