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The roots of the first-ever right to food organization

On the occasion of Human Rights Day, President of FIAN International Anita Klum goes back a few decades and looks into the connections between the organization and the development of the human right to food.

The history of FIAN International is also about the development of human rights. It follows the path from the creation of the UN in 1945, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and the two Covenants on the civil and political rights (CP) and the economic, social and cultural rights (ESC), both entering into force in 1976 after ratification by several States.

Despite the existence of several national and international instruments at that time, civil society could not wait for governments to take action in realizing human rights and needed to act. Already in 1961, Amnesty International (AI) become one of a number of organizations created in the 60s and 70s. Yet, these organizations tended to focus on civil and political human rights only. By then, ESC rights were not considered justiciable: they were not regarded as rights but more as a sort of “being kind to poor people”. 

Some voices from AI groups in Germany already questioned this approach.

“Why is nobody debating the human right to food and related rights?  They are a matter of life and death in many situations. Why is food as a human right completely absent from political debates?,” they questioned.

And proposals were raised:

"Why not incorporate the ESC rights into the AI mandate? One needs to see the full picture, not just the outline but also the shading. How could you fight for people’s right for freedom of expression if you die from hunger?"

But forces within AI would not give up its narrow mandate that, until then in its concentrated form, had worked so successfully.

In 1981 AI celebrated its 20th anniversary and some AI members wondered where the human rights of political prisoners and victims of torture would be without an organization like Amnesty International. They further realized that organizational structure and efforts are indeed necessary to really change existing unjust and immoral patterns. So they asked themselves:

"Why not build an organization like Amnesty International – but devoted to food as a human right? Its focus is not aid, but the human rights of hundreds of millions and the eradication of those structures and circumstances that produce hunger and malnutrition over and over again."

Under the name Food First Information and Action Network, a common effort kicked off in 1983 with a loose pilot network of church and AI groups being created. Individuals participated in their personal capacity without a mandate from their organizations. Experiences of NGOs at grass root level proved immensely valuable in the process of operationalizing the right to food in  national and international law.

And, after a couple of years of promising testing, in 1986 FIAN International would be formally founded. Its model of work would be based on Amnesty style urgent actions, case-work as well as advocacy activities and campaigns. This would be developed in close dialogue with lawyers and researchers, who played a crucial role in terms of human rights argumentation. National sections were created rather quickly, first in Europe with Germany and Belgium, and then beyond, in India (1992), Mexico (1995) and Brazil (2005).

In the words of Rolf Künnemann, one of the founding fathers of FIAN International, whose insights are the basis of this piece, the organization and its work worldwide have been the result of a collective effort.” It is impossible to do justice to all those who have made this happen, who have contributed to the organization with their energy, commitment, voluntary work and resources”. 

The roots of FIAN International are, in other words, the people and their human rights.

By Anita Klum