ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49
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The human right to food

The fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Pakistan, a strong US ally, before arriving in Colombo, and then proceeded to India to discuss one of the world's most sought after commodities - natural gas and oil, has caused more than a flutter in the world of diplomacy.

For Sri Lanka, it was not only the renewal of age-old historical ties with the former Persia - a long time friend before some of the key players in the modern world were even discovered - but a steadfast commitment from a country that has the resources to provide assistance and is in search of friends in a world where forces are at work in isolating it from the rest.

It was after a very long time that a visiting Head of State or Government has come to Sri Lanka to launch an economic development project funded by that country. After years of sheer non-activity on the national economic front, except to sell the 'family silver' as it were to foreign companies, the Iranian President's visit was a welcome change, if, at least, for that reason. Whether there will be a fall-out or international ramifications from Sri Lanka's unstinted support for Iran's "peaceful" nuclear programme, it is too early to tell.

But Sri Lanka cannot live in an insular world, especially with its economy heavily dependent on global factors. Good relations are a sine qua non with countries that have the financial muscle, particularly at a time the domestic economy is struggling and the country is at war with a well-funded, well-organised and ruthless terrorist organisation.

Today there seems to be warning flashes from all over the world that a food crisis is looming. We have been highlighting this ever since the rice harvest was washed out due to heavy rains in March and an inefficient Government started looking for rice from other countries - rice that was not there. This week, the United Nations was prompted into action with a Food Summit convened in Geneva. Appeals were made to the rich countries to fork out more money to UN agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) to ensure that the world's poor did not starve to death.

Last week, this newspaper carried in its front page the fact that the WFP has been forced to cut down on its rations to nearly a million almost forgotten Sri Lankans it is feeding in the strife-torn Northern and Eastern Provinces. From last Thursday, as the world marked International Labour Day (May Day), the WFP slashed these rations from 1,900 kilo calories - the amount of the energy value in the food -- to 1,665 kilo calories per person. The cuts to this already impoverished section of Sri Lankan citizens were in wheat flour and sugar. Western nations are trying to shift the blame for the current crisis on to protectionist measures adopted by many food exporting countries, saying this caused instability in the global food markets.

The World Bank President at the UN meeting in Geneva also called for the world to awaken to the crisis, but the international bank itself is now under scrutiny; for the first time the free market system advocated by these global lending institutions is being challenged and questions asked about their efficacy. The outspoken UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, a Swiss national, however, blamed the West squarely for the situation. He said that one-third of the price hikes are due to speculation in the food stock markets and the essentially US drive to turn hundreds of thousands of acres of edible corn into bio-fuels such as ethanol could cause a hunger insurrection worldwide.

He also singled out the trade liberalisation talks of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as one of the causes for people dying of hunger and defended protectionist taxes, which he said allow farmers to cultivate food crops. The UN expert called for the suspension of alternative energies such as bio-fuels saying this was one of the reasons for the sharp increase in food prices, a call that was supported by international charity organisations.

The Western world's entire outlook - further aggravated by the parallel problem of climate change (global warming) - has come under a sledgehammer of criticism even from their own quarters, and countries now promoting human rights as they see it, around the world, have had the searchlight turned on them on one of the fundamental human rights issues of mankind - the human right to food.

There are calls now to make the UN Special Rapporteur's mandate a crucial instrument; to make the right to food more visible in the work of human rights campaigns; and to make the affluent countries more accountable for all they have plundered of the world we all live in - both in the spheres of global warming and manipulation of food markets, by their conspicuous consumption and general exploitation of the world and its resources. The shoe now seems to be on the other foot on the human rights front, insofar as the West is concerned.

But this does not absolve individual countries of blame for ignoring the problems of their own people.

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