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Canada’s wrong approach to the right to food

by Oxfam | June 1, 2012

This post was written by Jeremy Nemanishen, Co-chair of Oxfam BC/Yukon Steering Committee

The UN's special rapporteur for the right to food visits Canada for 11 days. Initially, the Canadian government does not bother to make any ministers or political staff available to meet with him, giving Canadians the impression that the issue is of little or no importance. Or perhaps simply presuming that by refusing to engage with the issue and those who work close to it, Canadians will ignore it too – we are more concerned with the economy than with food issues in the global south, or so the government seems to believe.

In some ways we should not be surprised. While food security and the right to food is of paramount importance for millions of people globally, not to mention for those in the Sahel region of Africa who are currently in the midst of a devastating food crisisOpens a new window, the Canadian government seems pay them little or no regard. They seem to prefer to see the problem as one wholly owned by those who suffer from it, with the solution also being their responsibility too – no help from us, anyway.

Yet the government's refusal to see food security and the right to food as a concern, or to acknowledge the UN special rapporteurOpens a new window in any meaningful sense, points to an ongoing problem within the mindset of government: the slow and steady withdrawal inwards, a political retreat to the North American Island. By refusing to make ministers available to meet with Mr. De SchutterOpens a new window, this government is implicitly saying that these issues are of no consequence to Canada, or to its citizens.

And yet we know that Canadians understand the importance of food and its links to poverty – whether in terms of food security, the provenance of their food, or even in talk of food rights – and they are engagedOpens a new window and understand that we all need to eat, and that a secure source of good food – whether that be the supermarket, one's own garden, or the local farm – is paramount. The success of Oxfam's GROW campaign should also serve as a positive sign that Canadians are engaged on this issue on both a local and global level.

So why is the Canadian government taking such a blasé stance towards the UN special rapporteur? Admittedly, the government has reluctantly provided accessOpens a new window to the Minister of Health for a meeting with the special rapporteur. The UN envoy was informed that his mission would be focusing mainly on technical issues and so there was no need for politicians to meet with him. And yet as Mr. De Schutter has statedOpens a new window: "Hunger is a political, not a technical issue." Clearly our government does not agree.

Perhaps this is just a symptom of a wider problem, one that Oxfam Canada's Executive Director Robert Fox recently referred to as a "vacuum of global leadership," on his trip to Vancouver and Victoria in early May 2012. He refers to a trend in donor countries – namely in Europe and the United States – where they focus inwardly on their economies and their elections respectively. In such a climate, where some governments might have seen an opportunity to take the lead internationally by setting standards or providing the political leadership to stay the course, this government has instead seen this crisis of leadership as an opportunity to step away from its international obligations without consequence.

Who, after all, will hold it to account? Certainly none of the EU countries, who are themselves slashing their aid budgetsOpens a new window in an attempt to right that listing economic ship. Certainly not NATO, who is in the midst of it's own internal conflicts over AfghanistanOpens a new window and missile defenceOpens a new window. Nor the United States whose own upcoming election is seeing more attention focused on whether the country is prepared to go to war against IranOpens a new window than on the work of international bodies such as the United Nations to promote and uphold the same rights that it claims to champion, both at home and abroad.

Of particular interest is that this behaviour towards the special rapporteur comes just weeks before the G8 summit at Camp David where leaders committed to the New Alliance for Food Security and NutritionOpens a new window. Looking at the plan, however, gives us yet another glimpse into the future of our country’s emerging approach to rights: we promote them only when the private sector is involved.

So with the situation as it is, the usual 'prestige pressure' that often compels governments to abide by their international commitments associated with international rights movements is, for the moment, absent. And as Canadians are seeing the rest of the world focus inwardly, they may indeed think, "why should we not do the same?"

Or perhaps this is precisely what this government hopes that we will do. By consistently presenting to Canadians the image of how they see themselves on the international scene, pandering to the notion that we are still global peace keepers, the government can hide that inconvenient truth that our country is no longer a paragon of reason and leadership on the international stage, but rather one who yet has the chance to stop this fall from grace by taking the positive leadership role it once held. Truth is rarely as rosy as fiction, and ignoring our role in a global race to cut aid budgetsOpens a new window and delegitimize social movements and social causesOpens a new window can only serve to make this country, to say nothing of our partners overseas and their constituents they serve, far worse and far more unequal.

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