The articles published in this Issue shed light on four human rights questions that of late have provoked much debate in the Nordic human rights community: genetically modified food, seen from a human rights angle of food shortage and security; the excessive workload of the European Court of Human Rights; the role of National Human Rights Institutions in advancing human rights; and the meaning and impact of popular involvement and participation in health reforms, as a feature of a human rights approach to development and policy-making. In view of the diversity of the subject matters discussed, the essays mirror a vibrant academic debate on important legal, political and social issues.

In The Contribution of Genetically Modified Food to the Realization of the Right to Adequate Food, Monica Szkar?at takes her point of departure in the biotechnological advancement made over the last decades and argues that these advances offer tremendous possibilities in securing access to food. She enters into the hotly debated field of genetically modified food (GMF) and argues that while GMF can make some important contributions to resolving food shortage and secure the right to food, there are serious dangers to be addressed, not least to ensure that the GMF is “adequate”, which entails a host of requirements about the quality of GMF, and whether it is health secure. In view of the ethical and health security issues involved, she argues that there is a need for a creating a separate system of international standards for GMF that reflect the growing legal, philosophical and political discourse on food security and adequacy as a human right.

Jon Petter Rui’s contribution directs our attention to the long existing problem of an excessive overload of cases before the European Court of Human Rights in his contribution The Interlaken, Izmir and Brighton Declarations: Towards a Paradigm Shift in the Strasbourg Court’s Interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights? Rui reviews the debates in three international conferences (leading to the declarations referred to in the title), and their recommendation to the Court to pay less attention to the facts of cases handled. Rather, the Court should to a much larger extent rely on the discussion of the facts of cases by national courts; in other words, the Court should give more weight to the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation. Rui finds it evident that the Court has began applying this recommendation, and warns that the potential consequences of this “paradigm shift” – and the need, motivation and legitimacy of these changes – have not at all been properly addressed. These are important issues, and they concern the ongoing discourse on questions of legitimacy related to the Strasbourg Court.

Since the UN General Assembly adopted the Principles related to the Status of National Institutions (the Paris Principles) in 1993, more than 100 countries have established a national institution (NIs) “vested with the competence to promote and protect human rights” (the Paris Principles article 1). Over the last decade, these institutions have established a significant international collaboration (within the their International Coordination Committee) and contribute – to various degrees – to promote and protect human rights in their respective countries. A critical principle is that an NI should be independent of the government. However, little research has been done on the functions and effectiveness of these institutions – how they work, the obstacles they face and their effectiveness in promoting and – not least – protecting human rights. In view of this, we welcome Mutaz M Qafisheh’s essay The International Status of National Institutions: A Comparison with NGOs. Here, Qafisheh assesses the effectiveness of NIs compared with non-governmental human rights organisations, and critically examines the independence – or lack of independence – of selected NIs. He finds that many NIs are established merely to “hide human rights violations” behind memberships in international human rights forums, and that when they are operating more genuinely and contribute to human rights promotion and protection, they are still far less important than non-governmental organizations.

Finally, we publish an analysis by Camila Gianella-Malca, A Human Rights Based Approach to Participation in Health Reform, on whether a significant health reform in Colombia was undertaken in an inclusive manner, and in consultation with the beneficiaries, that is, the users of health services. Interestingly, the Constitutional Court of Colombia in a landmark decision has required that the reform be carried out in a manner consistent with a human rights approach, which would require wide consultation and participation. The processes of policy reform, however, did not fulfil this requirement. At a more general level, this experience sheds some light on what it means to apply the much debated concept of human rights based development in policy making and reform in highly developed countries, rather than in contexts of poverty eradication where the concept has usually been applied.

All topics presented in these essays require further analysis and discussion, as they address important questions in the Nordic, and broader international human rights debate.