International Guidelines on Human Rights, Healthy Diets and Sustainable Food Systems: could they make a difference?

The BMJ has published an Opinion calling on the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Michelle Bachelet, to jointly initiate a process to develop International Guidelines on Human Rights, Healthy Diets, and Sustainable Food Systems.

180 signatories from 38 countries have supported this Open Call – experts in global health and development, human rights, food systems, and HIV.

You can join the Call and add your name in support here, at the Healthy Societies 2030 website.

Healthy Societies is also hosting supporting documents, including a suggested process for strengthening links between human rights and healthy diets at the global level, and moving towards international guidelines.  (You can contribute to the discussion form, follow on twitter, and join the mailing list).

But pausing for a moment.

How would International Guidelines on human rights and healthy diets make a difference?

The Open Call published in BMJ draws on the example of the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights (1998), which clarified the legal obligation of States, under international law, to respect, protect and fulfill human rights in the context of HIV.

These Guidelines helped to consolidate the framing of global strategy for HIV prevention and treatment in terms of the human rights of those affected by HIV.

And they provided language and conceptual tools for civil society organisations to hold governments to account.

In the BMJ Opinion, we argue that joint WHO/OHCHR guidelines could have a similar effect, by putting people at the centre of food systems, and strengthening the protection of health in global and national policies.

 

Framing global strategy effectively: the example of HIV

Getting global strategies right matters because they affect national strategies, actions and budgets.

These days, human rights are at the centre of the global response to HIV.

A focus on human dignity, preventing discrimination, empowering those with, or at risk of HIV, and ensuring that no one is left behind – these human rights values lie at the core of global strategies to prevent transmission and treat infection.

It wasn’t always that way.

In Australia, in the 1980s and early 1990s, public debate about rising rates of HIV infection was often framed by prejudice and fear.

HIV was the “gay plague”.  As a PhD student, I remember seeing a call by the Queensland Association of Catholic Parents to brand homosexuals in order to “stop AIDS”.

In Australia at that time, otherwise sane people were arguing that everyone in the country should be tested for HIV, and those with HIV should be removed from society or quarantined in the desert somewhere.

Fortunately, a kinder, more rational and humane approach – a human rights approach – prevailed.

By working with and through those affected by HIV – rather than against them – HIV rates have remained low in Australia.

It didn’t happen by accident.  It took a great deal of effort to ensure that national strategy was framed in such a way as to make it effective.

(The Honourable Michael Kirby, a former Justice of the High Court, and tireless advocate for a human rights approach to HIV – especially during the critical decades of the 1980s and 1990s – is one of the signatories to this Open Call).

 

Why a human rights frame for healthy diets and sustainable food systems?

So human rights have played an honourable role in the global response to HIV.

But how could they have a similar positive impact on nutrition, diet, and health around the world?

Some of the most urgent public health problems today revolve around the interlinked crises of obesity, poor nutrition, hunger, and climate change.

The starting point is that in many countries, market forces are failing to deliver healthy diets, adequate nutrition and sustainable food systems.

If framing food purely as a commodity, and if framing food systems purely as business networks supplying commodities in response to market demand – was effective, then countries wouldn’t be buckling under the strain of a massive, preventable burden of diabetes, obesity and chronic, diet-related diseases.

The Lancet Commission on Obesity called for “a radical rethink of business models, food systems, civil society involvement, and national and international governance” to address these problems.

While many actions will need to be taken, the BMJ Opinion argues that human rights concepts and language are powerful, under-used tools.

Interested in supporting breast-feeding, and preventing the predatory corporate practices that undermine it?  Try doing that without the moral support of human rights concepts.

Interested in the quality of food and drinks served in schools?  Or the stealth marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children using online platforms?  You could, of course, revert to the well-worn concepts of parental responsibility and consumer choice.  How’s that working out?

International human rights law provides a powerful way to frame these, and other challenges.

States owe an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health, as recognised in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Amongst other things, this requires States to protect the right to health from interference by others, including corporations pursuing economic interests without reference to the impact on health or the environment.

Joint WHO/OHCHR guidelines could help to push human rights concepts and language beyond the “UN human rights silo”.

The subtle form of forum sharing and coalition building that we advocate, through joint WHO/OHCHR guidelines, is increasingly recognised in other areas of the global health response, such as the Global Strategy to Accelerate Tobacco Control (2019), adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Many new ideas appear surprising at first glance.  And action at the global level may appear indirect, and abstracted from reality.

However, International Guidelines on human rights and healthy diets could help to mobilize multisectoral action, strengthen the accountability of States and the private sector, and deepen community engagement in the urgent task of developing healthier, fairer and sustainable food systems.

Let’s leave no one behind.

You can join the Open Call on Dr Tedros and Dr Bachelet here.