Amanda Lyons: Human Rights, the SDGs, and Multistakeholderism: the Case of Food Systems Transformations

Amanda Lyons

Welcome to our blog, the Human Righter. We shed light on contemporary human rights issues and comment on human rights developments. We dig deep into our focus areas within human rights, discuss SDGs and human rights. You will also find book reviews and analyses of new laws.

By: Amanda Lyons, Executive Director, Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School

Crisis as a Catalyst for Transformation

Virtually no consideration of Covid-19 response or recovery is overtly focused on returning to the status quo. Many actors and debates see in the crisis and disruption an opportunity and catalyst for advancing transformations that would be difficult or impossible otherwise (Naomi Klein). And crisis, of course, is baked into the history of the human rights project.

With the backdrop of multiple, interrelated global crises, a common thread in the calls for a transformative recovery from the pandemic is the need to abandon outdated, ineffective, harmful systems and envision a new social contract. In calling for “the Great Reset,” World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab suggests that:

“Seeing the failures and fault lines in the cruel light of day cast by the corona crisis may compel us to act faster by replacing failed ideas, institutions, processes, and rules with new ones better suited to current and future needs.”

But there are drastically divergent understandings of exactly what we need to abandon and what new systems should be built; which ideas are in fact the ‘old ideas’ and which are truly transformative.

The SDGs as a Frame for Rights-favorable Transformations

Member States explicitly rejected stronger ties to human rights when designing the 2030 Agenda. However, since then, advocates and UN human rights bodies have worked hard to emphasize the links and overlaps between the Sustainable Development Goals and the international human rights framework.

However, in practice, vices in the Agenda’s design and implementation may position the SDG framework as a barrier to advancing rights-based agendas in key settings – as important voices have identified (Reflection group on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Kate Donald, Philip Alston).

In broad stroke, these vices include:

  1. The SDGs are untethered from the human rights framework and often serve to supplant it.
  2. Without the human rights anchor, actors are emboldened to take a “cafeteria approach” to the SDGs of take what you want and leave the rest.
  3. The SDG frame ignores the principle of “do no harm.” In human rights language, there is a focus on the obligation to fulfill, but not on (and to the expense of) the obligation to respect and protect.
  4. Finally, the SDGs, by design and in practice, adopt an uncritical reliance on the private sector to achieve the Agenda’s aims.

Therefore, despite the aspirational aims, centering the SDGs as a guide for transformative responses to the pandemic is not necessarily conducive or favorable to long-standing rights-based agendas. In fact, it may serve as a vehicle for entrenching the root causes of violations and deprivations. Namely, the SDG framework may lend itself to consolidate the push for “stakeholder capitalism” and a multistakeholderism at the UN dominated by powerful corporate actors.

The recent UN Food Systems Summit is a powerful example.

Covid-19 and Human Rights in the UN Food Systems Summit

UN Secretary General António Guterres convened the UN Food Systems Summit this past September 23 during the UN General Assembly High-level week. The event was the culmination of an 18-month long process that endeavored to: “empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.”

Of the event, branded the “Peoples’ Summit,” the Secretary General said: “The Food Systems Summit provided an essential boost of energy into the 2030 Agenda and a silver lining in the cloud of the pandemic.”

However, on the eve of the UN Food Systems Summit, three UN human rights experts sounded the alarm that the Summit failed to engage meaningfully with human rights and the reality of the pandemic. The Special Rapporteurs with mandates related to food, the environment, and poverty expressed their fear that the Summit leaves behind the most marginalized and vulnerable groups and serves the corporate sector more than the people who are essential to ensuring our food systems flourish.

As the UN experts describe, the Summit fails to acknowledge (1) that the world’s predominant global food systems “violate human rights, exacerbate inequalities, threaten biodiversity, and contribute to climate change,” and (2) that a root cause of these problems is the increasing domination of food systems by transnational corporations. They conclude:

“By ignoring the root causes and vested interests behind increasing rates of hunger, malnutrition and famine, the Summit only reflects the status quo. . . In contrast, a human rights-based approach to food systems would hold corporations accountable. It would address ingrained power imbalances regarding access to land and water. And it would tackle core issues like land tenure, fair markets, and the privatization and monopolisation of seeds.”

This statement joined and elevated months of activism by civil society to intervene in and ultimately denounce the corporate capture of the Summit. More than 300 organizations called for a boycott of the Summit, and the Civil Society Mechanism of the UN Committee on World Food Security convened a parallel counter-Summit and ongoing response. The criticisms of the original Summit have focused on the protagonism ceded to corporate actors, the marginalization of human rights, and the uncritical and misleading innovation frame.

“Food systems” should be a useful lens for inserting human rights considerations because it signals the plurality of systems that relate to the span of activities from production to consumption of food, and the socio-economic and environmental impacts. However, as Ana María Suárez Franco of FIAN warned, the risk is that the look at “food systems” is understood exclusively as optimizing the global agro-industrial food system.

Of particular concern, and relevance far beyond questions of the right to food, social movements have raised concerns over the nefarious effects of the new structures and bodies that may remain in place after the Summit, undermining existing and hard-fought fora that have proven essential for human rights defense and promotion at the global level, namely the Committee on World Food Security, its High-Level Panel of Experts, and Civil Society Mechanism.

Follow the Conversation as the UN Calendar Marks World Food & Poverty Days

This week the UN and groups around the world are hosting convenings to exchange ideas on how to make these necessary transformations as we commemorate World Food Day (Oct. 16) and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (Oct. 17).

We invite you to watch our October 13 online panel discussion on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in the context of COVID-19 [recording shortly available here] for an critical reflection on these questions with leading experts in the areas of housing, water, food, and global supply chain.

This event was hosted by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Northeastern School of Law’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, and the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School and is part of our series of conversations on COVID-19 & Human Rights.

This post draws from the author’s chapter Human Rights in the New Social Contract: A Paradigm Shift for the SDGs?, in COVID-19 & Human Rights (Routledge 2021).

Amanda Lyons is the co-editor of the aforementioned book, together with Morten Kjaerum and Martha E. Davis. Check out the webinar series recordings and sign up for the next one, on November 22 on the same topics. 

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