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Interview with Dr. Bahram Ghazi from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (UN OHCHR).

A Doctor in international law, Mr. Bahram Ghazi has extensive experience in human rights and their implementation. He is currently an advisor on economic, social and cultural rights, cities, urbanization, land and human rights for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). He has taken part and conducted human rights fact-finding and assessment missions in various parts of the world, including with commissions of inquiry. He has published and contributed to numerous books, articles and reports including on international financial institutions; forced evictions and development.


Q1: How long have you been with UN OHCHR and what attracted you to the field of human rights?

I have worked for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) since 2004 in different capacities. My engagement on human rights probably comes from my personal background but the question of injustice is certainly the main motivation behind my work.


Q2: In 2017, the United Nations identified four situations of acute food insecurity that threatened famine or breached that threshold—in northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. What is the right to food and how, if at all, is it linked with the rise of starvation across these ‘four famine countries’?

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report, for the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The number of people facing chronic food deprivation has increased from 804 million in 2016 to 821 million one year later in 2017.

The right to food is a universally recognized human right. Every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, is entitled to the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. So, the key elements are availability, economic accessibility, physical accessibility and adequacy. This definition pushes aside some myths about economic, social and cultural rights and about the right to food in particular. Such rights do not translate into the free provision of food by the State to all citizens. It is about respecting, protecting and promoting these rights at all times. The right to food is not a right to be fed. It is the right to feed oneself in dignity, through their own efforts and using their own resources. However, to be able to do so, a person must live in conditions that allow him or her either to produce food or to buy it. Therefore, food insecurity and malnutrition cannot be separated from the laws, policies and programmes put in place by Governments nor from political and economic inequalities and discrimination.

The fundamental right of every individual to be free from hunger is very important in the regions you mentioned.

 Yet, situations of mass starvation do not start on their own, they are rooted in structural and political problems, and then worsened by conflicts and natural disasters.



Q3: Prior to the re-emergence of famines in 2017 you were already engaged in accountability for starvation crimes with the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (‘DPRK’). This is one of the most far-reaching Commission of Inquiry reports on starvation crimes. Can you tell us about and some of the processes involved in the DPRK Report?

The importance of the work of the Commission in analyzing the famine in the 1990s and starvation in the country through the lens of the political context and the violations of the right to food and civil and political rights.

Before the report, it was generally admitted that the 1990’s famine was caused by natural disasters. But already before such calamities, there was already widespread famine in many regions. One of the causes was the agricultural system that was put in place by the DPRK government and the ideological pursuit of “self-sufficiency” at any cost, including the lives of their citizens.

Despite the famine, the government continued to use two tools for controlling the population: food and fear. Even with a derelict food distribution system, it did not allow the freedom of movement of individuals within and outside of the country in search for food.

Access of humanitarian organisations was restricted even at the peak of starvation, with aid diverted and humanitarians leaving the country due to the obstruction.

The COI also analyzed the famine and the food situation in the country in view of the prioritization of the military expenditures, importation of luxury goods for the elite and expenditures on personality over people’s basic needs such as food, water and health.

All these violations show the interaction between violations of the civil and political rights and economic and social rights and a famine that led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, maybe more.

Unfortunately, the discussions around malnutrition and famine, including “early warning”, still tend to focus more generally on food production and calories intake, but in reality, it is also crucial to include elements such as how food reaches the population, who it reaches and why, and the related political decisions.

That is why the Commission expressed its concerns that starvation could resurface because structural issues, including laws and policies that violate the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger remain in place.


Q4: What were the recommendations made within the COI in terms of accountability or reparations for the crimes and what if anything occurred as a result of those recommendations?

There were various recommendations including ending discrimination and criminalization of activities reacted to the access to food; the promotion of the agricultural sector; and aligning the public budget priorities to what was really needed by the population, such as food. It was also recommended to allow unrestricted access and unhindered work of humanitarian organisations in the country.

The report did not only focus on the numbers of the people who starved to death, but it extended its reach to those who survived. The hunger and malnutrition they experienced has resulted in long-lasting physical and psychological harm.

For example, the effects of stunting: people in the DPRK are on average much shorter than those in South Korea, causing the military to lower the minimum height requirement for recruitment into the DPRK army.

These long-lasting harms raise the question of when do the consequences of a starvation end, highlighting the fact that these violations cause inter-generational harm across communities and society as a whole. Human rights violations do not only have an impact on the individual victim, but on the society as well. We need to separate such harms and give recognition and acknowledgment to both individual victims and the societal harms. This will entail different obligations upon the breaching state, which will have to put in place short and long-term remedies to such violations.

The report had a great impact in international community. It was the first time the Security Council put the human rights situation of a specific country on its agenda, and the report is still quoted by many researchers. It appears also to have had an impact upon the DPRK authorities who subsequently engaged more with the UN system.


Q5: We were on a panel together in Rome during the 2018 Annual International Bar Association Conference, and you talked about the shift that should occur in policy and law from food as a commodity to food as human right – could you elaborate on this point and how you think this shift should come about?

What we see in relation to economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to food, is that they are in general perceived as commodities, that could accessed if they are available and affordable. But affordability and availability are only two elements of the right to food. The realization of the right to food and freedom from hunger requires non-discrimination and equality, further in terms of inequality we cannot solely consider economic inequalities. Political inequalities and power imbalances in society are equally important. This is nothing new if we look at the work of people like Amartya Sen.

 Discussions about “famines” cannot be limited to consideration of the shortage of food and technical ways, such as measures of hunger, malnutrition, and mortality rates. Our understanding needs to go beyond this concept.

There must be a shift from treating food as a commodity to acknowledging that food is a human right. Considering food as a right has a deep impact on law, polices and intervention programmes, including for international actors.


Q6: You supported the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi which found that the Government failed to direct resources to alleviate malnutrition and poverty by engaging in a number of different conducts. The right to food of individuals can be affected by different factors and policies, which are sometimes difficult to disentangle. What are the most significant contributions to  the right to food violations occurring in the context of Burundi?

Burundi, once considered as a developing country, moved swiftly into a state of humanitarian emergency after the crisis in 2015. This shows again that there is a direct link between the right to food and politics.

What is interesting in the report on Burundi is that it looks at the scarce available financial resources and how they are spent or diverted. There is for instance a big chapter on corruption at the highest level of the government and how this money is used for the benefit of a few while most of the country is suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

In addition, the report explains how the “voluntary” and mandatory contributions required form the population, including those for the organization of the 2018 referendum and the upcoming presidential elections heavily affect a very poor population in the context of widespread inflation, food price increases and the clampdown on civil society and the press.


Q7: One of the aims of our website and of Global Rights Compliance and our partner organisation the World Peace Foundation – is to situate violations of the right to food as ‘starvation crimes’, placing such conduct within the rubric of other atrocity crimes. How do you see this initiative in the international context?

When I listened to your presentation in Rome, I thought: “this is exactly what is needed at international level”.

 These kind of atrocities are not usually viewed on the same level as other crimes occurring in the context of conflicts. This is absurd, considering that the numbers of victims of starvation are huge but no one seems to be accountable for them. 

This is why it is a really important field to explore. Opening new avenues to the application of international law in this context and enabling these crimes to be clearly recognized. In turn, it can act as an incentive for leaders to look at policies, programs and the impact of their political decisions and their accountability. Governments need to act in advance in order to assess the potential effects of their policies on the right to food, and keep a constant and vigilant monitoring.

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