The images from the crisis of the famine in the Horn of Africa remind us daily of the reality of hunger in our world. When faced with the images it is hard to comprehend what the role of the right to food is, and equally easy to question whether an international protection to the right to food has any purpose at all beside the reality of starvation faced by the famine’s victims.

FIAN’s Report: ‘Kenya’s Hunger Crisis – the Result of Right to Food Violations’ ( presents a deeper discussion of the context which created this situation of extreme hunger. The report reveals the myriad of issues which affect this food security situation. The explanations of the problems include factors which can be described as geographical or climatic, such as climate change and drought and others which are directly the result of human action such corruption; accountability and land tenure. This diverse range of problems from erosion of cooperative structures to investment in rural development have all contributed to famine. Indeed, it is difficult to consider the somewhat simplistic requirements of the right to food beside the complex and deep set root causes of this hunger.

The right to food, like other human rights by its nature seeks to blame and hold accountable. A human right seeks to demonstrate the state’s responsibility and how to seek redress through the state. However, when assessing responsibility for famine, while the state is clearly responsible for some elements which have caused a state of extreme hunger (such as investment in rural development or non-respect of environmental policies); responsibility cannot be attributed to the Kenyan government for low rainfall or climate change.

Looking at the right to food in this sense raises two questions:

1.      Is it useful to attribute human rights responsibility to a government for right to food issues?;

2.      And to what extent should we or could we delve into the causal factors of right to food violations to attribute blame?

Considering the first issue, it seems useful to be clear as regards the government’s responsibility in both causing and solving extreme violations of the right to food. In this instance the Kenyan government appeared to be involved in a number of issues which were key elements of the food insecurity in the region. These were both current (corruption) and historic (cooperative structures). In this sense human rights is useful in making responsibility clear and also consequentially in outlining, albeit in basic terms, the requirements of government to assure food distribution, production and conservation within their territories.

Considering the second issue, human rights solutions are more complex. Indeed, if we wished to, we could seek to attribute responsibility for climate change or other changes in environmental factors in the Kenyan region. This could look particularly to developed countries governments, industries and citizens. While it is intriguing to see how far and wide responsibility could be attributed, it appears not only to spread the blame too thin, but also appears to not be useful. While it might produce an effect in encouraging food aid to the region, or in the longer term in strengthening resolve for emission reductions, it does not offer a constructive and direct solution to present problems of hunger in Kenya.

FIAN suggests recommendations which highlight both the Kenyan’s government obligations to improve the food situation and other recommendations addressed to a vaguer group of external actors. Such an approach demonstrates that the right to food, which has been long ignored by the two main human rights organisations, can be approached through a traditional human rights activism approach of naming and shaming. In this sense, solutions to specific problems could be sought through this approach, including the possibility of  attributing state responsibility even within a complex range of causal factors.

Yet the naming and shaming approach to human rights tends to focus on specific issues at the expense of the bigger picture. This is true of civil and political rights issues and becomes even more exaggerated for economic, social and cultural rights where the causal factors are as complex as those highlighted in Kenya. An isolated approach to the problems producing a famine situation will not solve the problem of famine, which goes deep into human’s relationship with each other, their environment and their government. Rights can campaign for improved systems and accountability; but ultimately they do not offer long term solutions to fill these gaps. These must be sought through agricultural, governance and human effort.