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Legal liability for violating the right to adequate food?

Among the many causes that triggered Brexit, a central argument was the wish to ‘take back control’ from the EU and regain national sovereignty, for example in matters of migration. An extreme example where it is claimed that the people’s sovereignty was compromised by EU membership is the case of Greece. The report ‘Democracy not for sale’, published by the Transnational Institute, has studied the effects on the right to food of the austerity measures imposed on the Greek population, and has led to comments by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food that the damage caused could raise the issue of legal liability of the EU institutions and possible compensation.

Identifying a number of trends that have undermined Greece’s food sovereignty, the report concludes that the Greek State and the Eurozone Member States, as joint signatures of the three Memorandums of Understanding between 2010 and 2015, have violated the Greek people’s right to food. This right, according to the report,

is strongly enshrined in international human rights law and its normative content notes several elements (availability, accessibility, adequacy and sustainability) that need to be safeguarded. The right to adequate food also correlates closely with other economic, social and cultural rights, meaning that the violation of one right often leads to the violation of other rights. The right to health, life, water and adequate housing are underlying determinants of the right to food.

The report emphasizes that the fundamental rights violations described are not only issues of the Global South but are happening in the Global North as well. It additionally highlights the increasing tension between democracy, on the one hand, and financial markets and technocracy, on the other. This is becoming increasingly visible in Europe, most recently in Italy. It is often forgotten that while Italy has a higher public debt than allowed under the Stability and Growth Pact, it has a lower overall debt than for example the Netherlands if private debts are taken into consideration, and it was ‘private debt, not public borrowing, [that] caused the [2008] collapse’.

The Italian government has so far not given in to outside pressure to refrain from implementing a more counter-cyclical Keynesian policy to restore economic growth, including a citizen’s basic income. Some commentators have suggested that the EU risks a much larger political crisis if it continues to pressure Italy to take further austerity measures and does not give the new ‘populist’ government a chance to try to remedy Italy’s economic stagnation.

Another tension is between unmanaged hyper-globalisation and local rootedness. We have seen before that Dani Rodrik became known for claiming that democracy, the nation-state and globalisation are mutually incompatible; one can only have two out of three at the same time. Recently he emphasized the need for strong local communities and a less economistic worldview as a precondition to make globalisation work. The report of the Transnational Institute has shown that exactly the reverse has happened in Greece: ‘Examining the structural requirements of the memorandums suggests a deliberate ideological project of transforming the State and restructuring the Greek economy in favour of certain sectors of capital such as large (trans)national supermarket chains. The crisis provided a means to implement it’.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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