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Are there any countries that have formally codified in their law books that access to housing and food is an inherent right?

In other words, safety from violence is seen as something unconditional to an extent. Although there are extenuating circumstances, the overall sense is that freedom from violence is not an ideal we can’t afford to meet, but an ethical requisite that is defended no matter the cost (almost).

Do any countries formally recognize the instant and default right to housing and food, no matter what, barring very extreme circumstances?

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7 Answers 7

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Yes, articles 36 & 37 of Nepal's constitution, under Part 3; Fundamental Rights and Duties state exactly that:

  1. Right relating to Food:
    1. Every citizen shall have the right relating to food.
    2. Every citizen shall have the right to be safe from the state of being in danger of life from the scarcity of food.
    3. Every citizen shall have the right to food sovereignty in accordance with law.
  2. Right to Housing:
    1. Every citizen shall have the right to an appropriate housing.
    2. No citizen shall be evicted from the residence owned by him or her nor shall his or her residence be infringed except in accordance with law.

Several other countries include such provisions in their constitutions - for example in articles 71 & 77 of Cuba's 2019 constitution, articles 28 & 77 of Zimbabwe's constitution.

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    so what happens in Nepal if someone loses their income (or simply can't control their spending and buys too much clothing, toys, or whatever) and can't afford the rent and food payments? Does the state provide them with free food and housing as long as they want? That's always a problem with such clauses, how to prevent people abusing them.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 13:02
  • More specifically in regards to the legal right - are there well known cases where citizens have had to go to court to assert their food and housing rights under the constitution? What happened?
    – bdsl
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 16:14
  • @jwenting In a welfare state, the right to housing doesn't mean a pauper can continue to live in the mansion they bought when they were a millionaire. Nor does the right to food mean the right to be a gourmand. The first task of a state is the welfare and security of its citizens and every government has to balance compassion against abuse. Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 22:24
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    @DaveGremlin indeed. But if it's a human right the state MUST provide or be violating those rights, they can't put restrictions and conditions on it. That's the crux.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 4:36
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    @jwenting: That's a bit too simple. Many rights have conditions or restrictions attached - the freedom to travel is severely restricted for criminals in jail, as an obvious example. And 36.3 above explicitly states that the "food sovereignty" is conditional on ordinary law.
    – MSalters
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 13:05
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Germany does. Someone who has no means to get food and housing can go to the authorities and demand a place in a homeless shelter and feeding. This is clarified in laws which are derived from constitutional principles, but it is not an explicit constitutional principle by itself.

For most people who do not earn or own enough money to pay for food and housing, that means welfare payments including housing subsidies. But there are some who fall through the cracks of this system, either because there is no affordable housing to be had at the subsidized prices, or because their personal situation did not allow them to hold a steady dwelling. There are homeless people, living rough on the streets. They have a right to be housed in shelters. In practice, those homeless shelters are not always good housing, and getting a place on the same night can be problematic.

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    A number of homeless people are also afraid (rightly or wrongly) of going to homeless shelters, and would rather avoid them. A friend works with the Red Cross (in France), distributing hot soup to homeless during the winter (among other things), and they always try convincing the people to go to the local shelters -- which have space -- and offer to drive them. Most of the homeless they meet are happy to take the soup, bread, etc... but shake their heads and refuse to go to the shelters. Also, one tangible problem is dogs: few shelters accept dogs. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 8:56
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    @MatthieuM., there is the question of other people in those shelters, some with dependency or mental health problems, and the other way around, no-alcohol policies which are hard on alcoholics. It is not as if the city simply hands them they keys to a single apartment ...
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 19:00
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    @o.m. many who refuse to go to shelters do so because they're afraid they'll end up arrested for bucket lists of (usually petty) crimes they commit, thrown in jail or forced into a rehab clinic for drugs and/or alcohol addiction. And some shelters (especially those run by religious groups) simply won't take in anyone who doesn't meet their "standards" (meaning usually you have to be at least a titular adherent to that group's belief system or ideology for them to take you in, and many people refuse to do that).
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 13:05
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France may have something similar called "droit opposable au logement" (~right to housing): https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F18005

Not a lawyer but my understanding is that you can sue the government if they fail to provide you a safe and decent housing.

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    Not exactly "sue" the government. The first step is appealing to a specialized mediator after waiting too long (undefined), in hope they expedite the process, and the second step is using the administrative tribunal to force the expedite the process. In neither case are you paid or compensated. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 8:55
  • @MatthieuM. Sounds extremely French. Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:37
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    Un bilan; vie-publique.fr/eclairage/… In practice it is not applied sufficiently that we can actually talk about "right to housing"
    – njzk2
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 23:06
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The Portuguese Constitution establishes in its CHAPTER II, Social rights and duties, article 65, the right to housing.
Google translate, my emphasis.

Article 65th Housing and urbanism

  1. Everyone has the right, for himself and his family, to housing of an adequate size, in conditions of hygiene and comfort and that preserves personal intimacy and family privacy.

  2. To ensure the right to housing, the State is responsible for:

    a) Program and implement a housing policy included in general territorial planning plans and supported by urbanization plans that guarantee the existence of an adequate network of transport and social facilities;
    b) Promote, in collaboration with the autonomous regions and local authorities, the construction of affordable and social housing;
    c) Encouraging private construction, subject to the general interest, and access to own or leased housing;
    d) Encourage and support the initiatives of local communities and populations, tending to solve the respective housing problems and encourage the creation of housing cooperatives and self-construction.

  3. The State will adopt a policy aimed at establishing a rent system compatible with family income and access to own housing.

  4. The State, the autonomous regions and the local authorities define the rules for the occupation, use and transformation of urban land, namely through planning instruments, within the framework of the laws concerning territorial organization and urbanism, and proceed with the expropriation of land soils that prove necessary to satisfy urban public utility purposes.

  5. The participation of those interested in the elaboration of urban planning instruments and any other instruments of physical planning of the territory is guaranteed.

As for the other part of the question, the Portuguese Constitution does not guarantee the right to food.

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  • mind that it says nowhere that the government shall provide you housing, only that the government shall provide the conditions under which you can acquire housing if you have the means to pay for it.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 13:07
  • @jwenting That's true. Article 65's idea of the right to housing is on the same level as, for instance, the right to education, a right which the State (represented by the government) provides for with a public education system. (I have the feeling that I wrote poor English but that the message is clear.) Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 21:17
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International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is a treaty adopted by the United Nations in 1966. Together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it forms the legal basis for what the UN considered to be "human rights" in its first decades. The famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 had only been an abstract text to detail the basic concept, and to give the United Nations a purpose and direction for their work. But the two treaties, referred to by the UN as the International Bill of Human Rights are legally binding to every state that has ratified them.

Article 11 of the covenant concerns "adequate standard of living":

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

  2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

    (a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

    (b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

Currently, 171 states have signed and ratified the treaty. Four states, among them the United States, have signed the treaty, but did not ratify it. 22 states did not sign. The full list can be studied at the OHCHR dashboard. (You will have to select the treaty from the dropdown.)

For a treaty to become enforcable law, they have to be both signed and ratified. If they are legally binding, it is possible for every individual that finds itself bereaved of its rights set out in the covenant, to go before a court in his country and demand that his rights will be met.

While this sounds great at first, you have to consider what the text actually says: the states recognise the right and take appropriate steps to ensure its realization. A state that finds itself inable to provide housing and food for everyone is not automatically in violation of the law, but rather has to take the steps in his might to get there. This is called the principle of progressive realisation and is spelled out in Article 2:

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.

A few years back I had an interesting discussion with a human rights lawyer who opined that this principle also means that once a country has reached a state where it can guarantee a right for everyone, it cannot go back behind that state (for example by relaxing an existing national law). But I am not sure if that is a internationally accepted reading.

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Yes and No.

In law and legal rights of a person, rights are generally divide into two categories of Positive or Negative Rights.

A negative right is a right against the imposition of another entity and is a core tenat of classical Liberal Philosophy of Natural Law (I.E. if you are alone in nature, and can do such action, you have a negative right against the government imposition on that ability). An example of this can be found in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which imposes a restriction on congress from passing laws that violate a citizens right to speaking, publication, religious worship, public protest, and petitioning government for redress of grievances.

The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments grant the citizens negative rights to personal property against government intrusion (By stopping quartering of troops, imposing burdens of proof for search and seizure, and by requiring fair payment and due process for taking of property).

A Positive Right is the opposite of this ideal. A person who has a positive right on another party when they have a right to receive a benefit from that party. Most financial transactions are an exercise of positive rights through contracts (If give a merchant a certain value of goods, I have positive right on that merchant to give me a product or service that is fair compensation for that value.).

As such, most governments less likely to recognize positive rights as they impose burdens on the people. That said, they do happen. Nations with open access to government documents establish that citizens have positive right to request and review government documents on the government. In another example, the people have a positive right to emergency services provided by the government to which the government may not refuse.

When positive rights exist, they often provide a burden to those who are obligated under the positive right. As such, while many nations will recognize a negative right to food, water, and shelter (that is, the government of a nation may not stop you from becoming a home owner, eating pineapple pizza, or drinking Cactus Juice (It'll Quench You), most governments will not recognize a positive right to housing/shelter, food, and drinking in that they will provide these goods to citizens. They may create programs to help get needed items to people, but they do not guarantee it. The only exception will be in the case of people in the custody of the government for whatever reason, as the government has a positive right to provide basic needs to those in it's legal care (usually, these are convicted criminals serving jail sentences).

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    OP is asking about countries that express these as positive rights, not "what are rights"
    – Caleth
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 11:18
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    "most governments will not"? The US is one of only 26 member states of the United Nations that deny the positive right to food and housing to their citizens. The sophistication, no, sophistery you need to construct a legal-sounding justification for that speaks for itself, methinks. (I fully accept that my polemic may have been matched by one or another ambassador of the USSR to the UN, when addressing his US counterpart in the 1960s. So call me a Commie, if you want.)
    – ccprog
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 21:56
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    Analysis is correct (this question is indeed about a positive right) but then the rest is a libertarian rant that fails to answer the question.
    – MSalters
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:07
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Yes, India made "Right to Food" a law through The National Food Security Act, 2013.

The National Human Rights Commission of India had highlighted that the indian constitution envisaged "Right to Food" as a fundamental right of all human beings:

... Right to Food is inherent to a life with dignity, and Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees a fundamental right to life and personal liberty should be read with Articles 39(a) and 47 to understand the nature of the obligations of the State in order to ensure the effective realization of this right.

Article 39(a) of the Constitution, enunciated as one of the Directive Principles, fundamental in the governance of the country, requires the State to direct its policies towards securing that all its citizens have the right to an adequate means of livelihood, while Article 47 spells out the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people as a primary responsibility. The Constitution thus makes the Right to Food a guaranteed Fundamental Right which is enforceable by virtue of the constitutional remedy provided under Article 32 of the Constitution.

The Commission has, therefore, additionally taken the view that there is a fundamental right to be free from hunger and that starvation constitutes a gross denial and violation of this right.

Source: Right to Food - a Fundamental Right

The Supreme Court of India said in People's Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India on starvation deaths:

... In case of famine, there may be shortage of food, but here the situation is that amongst plenty there is scarcity. Plenty of food is available, but distribution of the same amongst the very poor and the destitute is scarce and non-existent leading to mal-nourishment, starvation and other related problems .... We direct all the state governments to forthwith lift the entire allotment of food grains from the Central government under the various schemes and disburse the same in accordance with the schemes, and added that the Food for Work Programme in the scarcity areas should also be implemented by the various States to the extent possible.

During covid, the Supreme Court again clarified and emphasised that that 'Fundamental Right to Life under article 21 includes Right To Food & other basic necessities'.


Unfortunately, implementation due to government apathy and slow economy is still a huge problem in India - India Ranks 107 Among 121 Countries in Global Hunger Index, Has Highest Child Wasting Rate.

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  • government isn't so much at fault as simply overwhelmed by the logistics in many areas. It's easy to say "there's a million pounds surplus of rice in the southwest, and half a million pound deficit in the northeast, so we need to move half a million pounds of rice", it's quite something else to arrange for that transport and guard it against theft and graft. And then of course create a situation in the deficit area where they can grow more of their own, a structural solution.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 13:10
  • No, it is government apathy and corruption. More than 10 years back, the Supreme Court of India was telling the government to distribute grains to the poor than let it rot in storage (Don’t let food rot, distribute it free to the poorest: SC). A decade later, the situation is still similar - 40,000 tonnes of food grains damaged in Godowns.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 8:34
  • And, this new just in today with the the Supreme Court again asking the government to Expand the food safety net without any more delay - Expanding PDS coverage to account for the increase in population since 2011 is a no-brainer; the Government’s resistance to implementing a Supreme Court of India direction is baffling.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 9:10

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