The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


The right to food is protected by national laws, which establish obligations between members of the same family and more general obligations of national solidarity, guaranteed by the State. This right is also defended in different forms in many international texts as an integral part of ensuring “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of individuals and their families (Art. 25 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

In Times of Peace or Unrest

States have organized an international solidarity system to supply food, under the aegis of the UN. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the UN Specialized Agency that promotes cooperation and assistance between States to improve agricultural techniques and crop predictions. It has set up a warning system in case of food shortages.

At the same time, the World Food Program (WFP), established by the UN and FAO, is responsible for international assistance programs, in case a food shortage occurs in one part of the world, by using excess production and reserves that are available on a global scale.

Nutritional Requirements for Human Rights

WFP evaluates the nutritional requirements of a human being to be 2,100 kilocalories per day, while the ICRC sets the figure at 2,400 kilocalories. The needs vary depending on the age of the individual. Vulnerable individuals, such as children and pregnant women, have increased needs, yet they are often unable to fulfill these needs in times of hardship and competition for resources.

Food rations must be well balanced. They should contain the following products: cereals, fats, sugars, salt, and leguminous plants (e.g., peas, lentils, etc.). In all cases, they must contain 10 percent protein and 10 percent lipids.

In terms of water, each individual needs 20 liters per day (5.2 gallons):

  • 5 liters (1.3 gallons) of drinkable water (for drinking, cooking, etc.) and
  • 15 liters (3.9 gallons) for other needs (cleaning clothes, hygiene, etc.).

Since 2005, the United Nations has seized the issue of food security. The General Assembly has been working on the issue of the right to food, adopting several resolutions, and notably Resolution 61/163 in 2007, which urges States to give adequate priority in their development strategies and expenditures to the realization of the right to food.

Since its creation, the Human Rights Council has also dedicated part of its work to improving the full enjoyment of the right to food. In its Resolution 16/27 of 2011, the Council reaffirms that hunger constitutes an outrage and a violation of human dignity, therefore defining the right to be free from hunger as a fundamental human right. In the context of the world food crisis, the Council stresses the need to guarantee non-discriminatory access to land rights for smallholders, traditional farmers, and their organizations, including, in particular, rural women and vulnerable groups. It also encourages the Special Rapporteur on the right to food to ensure the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the fulfillment of his mandate. Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, was appointed on 26 March 2008 by the Council.

Moreover, the World Bank Group has set up the Global Food Crisis Response Program (GFRP) in May 2008 to provide immediate relief to countries hard hit by high food prices as a result of the volatility of agricultural raw materials. As of April 2011, GFRP has approved $1,479.1 million. The World Bank is responding to the food crisis in coordination with development partners, notably the UN High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, which was established in late April 2008 and brings together the heads of UN Specialized Agencies, funds, and programs of the Bretton Woods institutions.

In 2008, the FAO has also worked with the UN Task Force to produce the Comprehensive Framework for Action, a global strategy and action plan designed to soften the immediate blow of high food prices and address longer-term measures for sustainable food security. The UN Specialized Agency has developed other tools to address the world food crisis, notably the creation of flour substitutes, the provision of drought-resistant crops, improved seed varieties, fertilizers, tools, and technical assistance to farmers, as well as the evaluation of the volatility of prices in agricultural commodities in order to prevent an upsurge of the crisis.

In Times of Conflict

Conventional and customary international humanitarian law takes into consideration the fact that food can become a weapon; therefore, it precisely regulates its use and posits the obligation to provide aid for civilians. It prohibits

  • the use of famine or starvation of civilians as a method of warfare;
  • the destruction of crops and goods essential to the survival of the population;
  • the requisition of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.

It imposes

  • the free passage of relief supplies to besieged zones, in particular for women, children, and the elderly;
  • the free passage of food when the population is suffering from excessive shortages or deprivations, as well as the control of distribution by impartial humanitarian organizations so as to ensure that the food is not diverted by one of the parties to the conflict or other groups;
  • the obligation to provide adequate food supplies for interned or detained persons.

There are no international or national texts establishing a “right to water.” In times of conflict, the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols do not expressly mention this right; however, water is included de facto into the system of food and relief supplies. Hence, water benefits from the same protection as that established by humanitarian law for food and other goods indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. ▸ Protected objects and property

ChildrenDetentionFamineFood and Agricultural OrganizationInternmentMethods (and means) of warfareProtected objects and propertyReliefRequisitionSuppliesWomenWorld Food Program

For Additional Information: Kent, George. Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food . Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005.

Kracht, Uwe. “Human Rights and Humanitarian Action: The Right to Food in Armed Conflict.” In Human Rights and Criminal Justice for the Downtrodden: Essays in Honour of Asbjørn Eide , edited by Morten Bergsmo, 261–92. Leiden: Nijhoff, 2003.

Rome Declaration on World Food Security . World Food Summit (13–17 November 1996).

Tomasevski, K. The Rights to Food: Guide through Applicable International Law . The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

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