The third strand is that of parallel NGO forums to the large United Nations conferences of the 1990s (see Pianta 2001; Krut 1997). These meetings, dealing with the environment, human rights, gender and social policy and development issues, attracted an increasing number of professional NGOs, there to lobby governments, but also to network with each other. Ideologically, these NGO forums were not that much akin to the social forum phenomenon, but they created the habit amongst NGOs and wider civil society activists of going to broad-based international meetings, a function which the World Social Forum has to some extent taken over.

State implementation of the right to food remains lacklustre and even the Court’s commissioners are still routinely denied access to relevant documents. However, while the initial petition was brought only by a small group of lawyers from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the Supreme Court’s proactive stance has galvanised a much wider campaign. Besides public interest litigation, the Right to Food Campaign organises marches, rallies and fasts, initiates public hearings, conducts research, and engages in media advocacy and lobbying. Provision of midday meals to schoolchildren has been a particularly effective campaign target. On 9 April 2002, the campaign coordinated a national day of action for midday meals. Across some 100 districts in nine states, activists organised a host of activities – schoolchildren lined roads with empty plates in hand, copies of the Supreme Court’s order were distributed, and local communities, NGOs and people’s organisations fed children in public places in order to embarrass the government for not doing so. Some members of the campaign have since expanded their work to include the right to employment, in particular in relation to cash-for-work or food-for-work schemes. The campaign remains largely a volunteer effort, which accepts only individual donations in rupees with no strings attached (Right to Food Campaign URL; Interview Patnaik).

National and regional successes

Perhaps the greatest advances in economic and social rights, or at least the ones most visible to actual victims of economic and social rights violations, have been made at the national level. Parliaments have adopted laws and constitutional changes that directly recognise economic and social rights, and attendant state obligations; and courts have been increasingly active in interpreting national and international law in such a way that they can judge whether a violation of a right has taken place, and recommend state action to redress the situation. Mostly, both the new laws and the legal judgments have come about after sustained civil society campaigns. There are too many examples of such national victories to describe them all here. Box 3.2 gives a brief overview of the most significant developments.

At the same time, some grassroots membership groups of Amnesty International were beginning to feel frustrated with the organisation’s limited mandate. In 1982 the Heidelberg group in Germany sent a letter to other Amnesty groups suggesting a new orientation on economic and social rights, and got positive responses from groups in Austria, Switzerland and Italy. The right to food – most concrete, most directly connected to life and death, but also most defensible from a resource perspective – soon became the focus. The national and international leadership made it clear that it was not prepared to move in this direction, so individual members took their actions outside Amnesty and started networking with development and solidarity groups. Sometimes these organisations were reluctant to adopt a human rights approach to food, but there were always some individuals who were enthusiastic. After three years, the network was transformed into a formal human rights organisation, the Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN). Inspired by the Amnesty approach, it focused on blatant violations such as famines related to forced relocation, and undertook Urgent Actions, writing letters to governments, ‘even though we did not quite know what was a violation of the right to food, we were finding that out as we were doing it’ (Interview Kuenneman). Today, FIAN has around 3,300 members in 60 countries, only 12 paid staff, and continues to rely largely on voluntary work by its 40 or so active groups. It continues to write protest letters and send fact-finding missions, and also campaigns for agrarian reform, lobbies the UN and undertakes human rights education (FIAN URL).

In terms of strategy, groups belonging to the climate justice movement, such as Rising Tide, have opted for public education strategies and training (campaigning and public speaking workshops), and the production of materials (videos, fact sheets, CD-ROM, comic books) alongside strategies directly critical of the current course of the policy debate and continued financing of new oil and gas development, for example (Rising Tide 2004). Groups working on the impacts of climate change on specific social groups have also begun to organise themselves. Genanet, which describes itself as a focal point for gender justice and sustainability, would be one example of a group drawing attention to the differential role of women with regard the impacts and perceived risks associated with climate change, as well as their lack of participation in decision-making to date (Genanet url). Similarly, the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative is a coalition of dozens of religious and civil rights organisations advocating ‘the fair treatment of people of all races, tribes and economic groups in the implementation and enforcement of environmental protection laws’ (EJCCI 2002). Disproportionate impacts from climate change might accrue to these groups because, for example, 80 per cent of people of colour and indigenous people in the US live in coastal regions.