When someone mentions the words “human rights”, there’s often a very romanticized notion of what that means. People might imagine a right to live, or a right to be treated fairly, and a right to live and believe in whatever we want to believe. While there may be some discrepancies, the common thread among different interpretations is the answer to the question “what is it that we are all equally entitled to?”. When it comes to “big ticket” items like the right to live, worship and think freely, it’s difficult to argue against that.
But what about issues such as the “Right to Food”? Is this to be considered an inalienable right that is inherent to our person?
If we examine the recent uprisings in the Middle East, and focus especially on how climate change has affected Syria’s political instability, there may be a case for focusing more on the “Right to Food” than we have in the past.
What Climate Change did in Syria
Although the situation in Syria is portrayed as a war of ideologies and personalities, some scientists have posited that there is a climate change angle to this conflict as well. For example, this paper suggests that a severe drought in Syria led to the collapse of the agricultural system in that country, which led to an internal displacement of approximately 1.5 million Syrians into bigger city centres in search for jobs. The high dissatisfaction with quality of life, frustration with inability to find employment and lead meaningful lives, and dwindling resources all supposedly led to the conflict we now call the “Syrian Civil War”.
Assuming this is true, this could have major implications on how we organize our economies and view the global market. We have to start viewing each market’s economic efforts as having a gradual, indirect effect on other countries and their livelihoods, not just in an economic sense, but in a very real and physical sense. The obliteration of Syria’s agricultural economy, if truly linked to the effects of climate change, would not be the mere result of uncontrollable natural phenomena, but would be the result of human action and behaviour that must be corrected.
The issue so far is that, when it comes to climate change efforts, progress has only been made where there is political will. Existing international treaties have been somewhat ignored or deemed impossible to reach due to unrealistic targets. Other states have simply ignored the existing treaties in the name of economic interests. Therefore, when it comes to correcting attitudes on climate change, we need to begin highlighting the effects of climate change, such as the effect it has on the food security of more vulnerable states. Syria’s civil war should be a primary example of how this came to be.
Existing Rights, and How They Can Be Strengthened
International law already recognizes a “Right to Food” which, contrary to popular belief, is not an obligation to hand out free food. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC) includes a right to an adequate standard of living, which includes “adequate food, clothing, housing, and the continuous improvement of living conditions”. The right to food is also a well-established concept in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in addition to numerous other international treaties that focus specifically on the issue of food security.
Many countries across the world have begun to incorporate the Right to Food as a constitutional or legal right within the framework of their respective countries (for example, Bolivia, Kenya and South Africa have recognized the right to food as a separate and stand-alone right). However, there continues to be difficulty for some of the most vulnerable states due to the presence of large-scale, export-driven agricultural industries that not only diminish the livelihood of small-scale farmers economically, but can also physically destroy their resources by either taking the resources from them or using large amounts of fossil fuels in harvesting and processing those resources. Mr. Olivier De Schutter, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, highlighted this as an important goal to achieve in his final comments as UN Special Rapporteur in 2014:
“Wealthy countries must move away from export-driven agricultural policies and leave space instead for small-scale farmers in developing countries to supply local markets, […]They must also restrain their expanding claims on global farmland by reining in the demand for animal feed and agrofuels, and by reducing food waste.”
Therefore, the international legal regime needs to make sure that the Right to Food is not only protected legally in especially vulnerable countries, but that the efforts by large-scale, export-driven agricultural industries are coordinated with those countries so that they are in sync. In other words, we need to make sure that large-scale agricultural companies do not undermine the efforts of legal food security by doing business in a way that harms the economy and the physical livelihood of small-scale farmers.
Food Security: More Important Now Than Ever
Again, assuming that the Syrian Civil War was at least partly caused by climate change, we must begin to see that climate change is not just an environmental issue, but can be an important political factor as well. The political instability in Syria and across the Middle East shows that, for vulnerable and volatile regions of the world, hunger can become a heavy driving force behind political upheaval. States that know their water resources and farming are vulnerable to the effects of climate change have begun to recognize that food security is not just a laudable human right effort, but sound political and economic policy for long-term sustainability.
And if Syria’s civil war is any indication, the collapse of agriculture can be rapid and unforeseen with deadly consequences. Syria was an economically prosperous country throughout the 1990s (and historically has been known as an agriculturally rich area of the Middle East), yet it took only one short drought to bring it to its knees. If we are to learn anything from this situation, it’s that climate change takes no prisoners, and can bring the most prosperous nation’s livelihood and destroy it in the blink of an eye.