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Law as Catalyst in the Eradication of Hunger 

By John Teton

The following article was originally published by the Bread for the World Institute in
Hunger 2000 - The Tenth Annual Report on the State of World Hunger: A Program to End Hunger.
It was revised for the IFST website in October, 2015.

A small network of activists is pushing, with some success, for an eventual treaty that would make it illegal, under international law, for national governments to allow widespread hunger to persist. This proposed treaty would formalize global awareness that hunger can be ended and put added pressure on governments that neglect the problem.

The International Food Security Treaty (IFST) would establish an enforceable international legal guarantee of the right to be free from hunger, and oblige governments to establish and implement their own related national laws. The treaty (accessible at specifies legal responsibilities nations share to prevent starvation and malnutrition, and associated monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. For example, the deliberate use of starvation as a weapon—a tactic that led to the famines in Somalia in 1992 and 2011—would be prohibited. The draft IFST also calls for creating a global food reserve and resource center for emergency assistance, and allows both individuals and non-governmental organizations to bring complaints to U.N. agencies when governments fail to uphold the right to be free from hunger.

In 1993, the IFST embarked upon a journey estimated to require less than forty-five years for its evolution from initial conception to near-universal acceptance and implementation. Attention is now focusing on what steps must be taken to make the Treaty a reality. The history of existing global agreements on such issues as armed conflict (e.g., the Geneva Conventions) and the environment (e.g., the Law of the Sea and treaties on biodiversity and endangered species), suggest the five-phase process illustrated in the figure below. The timeline reflects an estimate of how long will be necessary for each phase, as well as a "fast-track" alternative, recognizing the potential for swift historical change, like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid.

The Five Phases of IFST Evolution


Design by Justin Mikkelsen Photography & Design

Phase 1: Concept Development and Validation (12 years)
Phase 1 focused on constructing and circulating the IFST Principles, gathering a critical mass of expert opinion, drafting the principles into Treaty form, and organizing a network of supporters among leading figures in the United Nations, anti-hunger organizations, religious and political leaders, and grassroots volunteers.

Phase 2: Proposal to the United Nations (12-13 years)
The IFST must be formally brought to the table that counts in treaty-making: the global community of national governments. Formal sponsorship will be established by one or more governments and/or by an intergovernmental organization like the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, and debate begun within the United Nations.

Phase 3: Initial Ratifications (2-4 years)
The IFST would come into force when twenty governments have ratified it. Once the first few nations have ratified the Treaty, expanding their number to twenty could prove a relatively easy matter.

Phase 4: Early Treaty Era (3 years)
Within three years after coming into force, individual nations must: (1) establish their own laws criminalizing the use of hunger as a weapon and insuring access to food for those unable to obtain it on their own; (2) participate in the functioning of the world food reserve and resource center; (3) file the first round of triennial reports to the United Nations on their progress and plans to implement the IFST, and (4) support any food security monitoring or enforcement actions proven necessary within the United Nations. At the same time, governments, organizations, and individuals will continue urging all nations to support the Treaty.

Phase 5: Campaign for Universal Ratification (7-17 years)
In order for the human right to be free from hunger to be fully protected, all remaining countries must be persuaded to sign and support the Treaty.


Prescription for Individual Action
Individual citizens in every country can contribute to the effort in small and large ways:
            1. Lobbying government officials to urge their active support of the IFST, and
            2. Spreading the word about the IFST among neighbors, relatives, schoolmates, co-workers and fellow members of religious and community organizations.*2

History has shown that such citizen pressure - not the leadership of politicians - represents the primary source and engine for successful social change movements.

U.N. Under-Secretary General Maurice Strong— himself a principal initiator of the Laws on the Environment and Biodiversity among others—sees the IFST "as the centerpiece of a whole system by which the capacity of the Earth to feed its people is translated into a real commitment to do something, because there's no fundamental need for hunger now, and certainly none for starvation." But his optimism is tempered by this sage advice to IFST supporters:

The timing for this kind of treaty won't get right unless people like you campaign for it. Initiatives like this—you could equate it to abolishing slavery or any one of a number of things —they do not occur over night. They need to be championed by small groups of people who have strong connections and are prepared to prevail against a general mood of apathy.

Just as strong law proved crucial to ending slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, so too can the IFST catalyze protection of the right of freedom from hunger and relegate hunger to the status of a lamentable relic of the past.

JOHN TETON, founding director of the International Food Security Treaty Association, participated in the NGO Forum at the World Food Summit, and served as coordinator of the 1998 International Conference on Consensus Strategy for the Right to Food in Law. E-mail:

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