Realizing Childrenís Nutrition Rights:

This Special Issue

George Kent
July 21, 1998

Malnutrition devastates millions of childrenís lives. It will not be ended simply by increasing food production. At the level of the individual, good nutrition requires not only good food but also good care and good health services, all embedded in a healthy environment. At the societal level, progressive social policy is required. While that policy may take several forms, our argument in this journal is that clearly articulated and effectively realized food and nutrition rights can play a major role in bringing an end to the enormous problem of malnutrition in the world.

Partly as a result of the rapid maturation of human rights generally, attention to food and nutrition rights has soared since the 1970s, in the literature, and also among policymakers in international organizations. However, there is still a long way to go to bring about a strong convergence in ways of thinking about food and nutrition rights, to codify the concepts in well-crafted law, and to show that food and nutrition rights can in fact be effectively realized. A major step toward achieving these results was taken with the publication in March 1996 of a Special Issue of the quarterly journal, Food Policy, focused on nutrition and human rights. That issue provided a status report on current thinking on food and nutrition rights.

This Special Issue of the International Journal of Childrenís Rights has been designed as a follow-up to the Special Issue of Food Policy, building on the foundations it established, and carrying the arguments further.

In the first article, by Urban Jonsson, the idea of nutrition rights is placed into a broad conceptual framework that incorporates thinking from nutrition, development theory, ethics, human rights, and the strategy of goal-seeking. Building on Jonssonís contribution to the earlier Food Policy, this article provides a framework that can help in understanding and integrating the subsequent articles in this issue.

The second article, on "USAID Child Survival Programs: Adopting a Human Rights Approach" shows the importance of going beyond conventional approaches to international assistance through examination of one large-scale international public health project. Catherine Johnson acknowledges that the donorsí programs may, without full awareness, help in the realization of human rights. However, she argues that these programs could be much more effective in helping to realize human rights if they were explicitly and directly designed for that purpose.

Many different kinds of nutrition-related programs and projects can become more meaningful when placed into the human rights framework. Their design can be made more cogent through the application of the human rights approach. This is demonstrated here with several studies on infant feeding. In the third article, Michael Latham examines the broad question of whether and how breastfeeding should be seen as a human rights issue. This is then followed, in the fourth article, with a study by Leah Margulies of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and its role in the realization of nutrition rights.

In the fifth article, on "Realizing Human Rights Through Implementation of National Law" I shift attention from the global to the national level. My purpose is to highlight the importance of preparing well-crafted national law to assure the realization of international human rights of all kinds. Contrary to some widespread impressions, it is national governments, not international organizations, that are the primary agents for the realization of human rights.

Then, in a separate article, the sixth, I draw together themes covered in several of the earlier articles, to suggest how national law can be important in assuring effective implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

Some readers of this Special Issue may be disappointed at not finding clearer answers to their questions about what food and nutrition rights are and how they work. The only way one could get unambiguous answers to such questions at this stage would be to listen to only one "authority" while silencing others. The simple fact is that food and nutrition rights are "works in progress"ónot yet finalized. We remain confident that food and nutrition rights can and should be made into effective instruments for combating hunger in the world. Like all human rights workers, we are optimists who see possibilities for making a real difference in the future.

The Special Issue of Food Policy did not resolve all the divergence among specialists on the theme. Neither does this one, but we are seeing real progress. Our hope and plan is that with continuing effort of the sort represented by these two Special Issues, the scattered threads of thinking will in time converge enough to allow weaving a strong fabric of food and nutrition rights as fully recognized and realized human rights. It will surely be worth the effort.

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