Interview with Hilal Elver: U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

From by Kathryn Bryant
Interview with Hilal Elver: U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Hilal Elver, the third person to hold the position of Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, is a law professor and globally distinguished fellow at UCLA Law School's Resnick Food Law and Policy Center.

She is the author of Peaceful Uses of International Rivers: Case of Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion, published in 2012 by the Oxford University Press. Her most recent book is Reimagining Climate Change, co-edited with Paul Wapner and published in 2016 by Routledge Press. She was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food by the Human Rights Council in May 2014 and assumed her functions on June 2, 2014. In April 2016, she spoke with Food Tank about several pertinent issues surrounding global food security today.

Food Tank (FT): Could you explain what the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food does?

Hilal Elver (HE): Right to food is one of the fundamental human rights legally protected by the U.N. Covenant of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 130 countries. The Special Rapporteur monitors right-to-food violations, identifies general trends and policies related to the right to food, and undertakes country visits (at least two in a year) which provide the Special Rapporteur with a first-hand account of the situation concerning the rights to food in a specific country. Besides country reports, the SR presents two thematic reports per year to the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. General Assembly on selected themes, based on priorities of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. The Special Rapporteur also communicates with States and other concerned parties with regard to alleged cases of violations of the right to food and other issues related to her mandate.

FT: You said prior to the climate talks in Paris last December that, "Responding to the food demand through large-scale, production-oriented agricultural models is not the right solution. There is a need for a major shift from industrial agriculture to transformative systems such as agroecology that support the local food movement, protect small-holder farmers, and respect human rights, food democracy, and cultural traditions while maintaining environmental sustainability and facilitating a healthy diet." Now that the talks have ended, what progress do you feel we have made toward achieving these goals?

HE: The Paris Agreement is the beginning of a new era for the next 15 years. At the same time, it is a continuation of the UNFCCC climate change regime. It is the aftermath of the Kyoto Protocol, which was a binding period for the reduction of GHG emissions for countries that ratified the Kyoto. So we should consider the Paris Agreement a routine process of the international climate diplomacy. Unfortunately, food systems have never been a popular subject in climate change negotiations, despite the very complex relationship between the two. What I defined in my report before the Paris meeting is still relevant: an ideal food system that is healthy for people, sustainable for the environment, and friendly toward climate change is the only viable system for the future. Now, we have to wait and see whether States continue with “business as usual” or if they will shift their system to the ideal one. Unfortunately, there is not much time for a trial and error period.  If they commit to change, among other policy changes such as energy,  they should transform the food and agriculture system to what I referred to in my report, along with what many scientists, agronomists, food policymakers, and activists have been supporting for many years.

Moreover, the Paris Agreement gave lip service to human rights, only mentioning them in the Preamble, rather than operational articles. Needless to say, there is no “right to food” anywhere in the Paris Agreement and COP21 decision.

FT: As a proponent of agroecology, you have said in the past that "Agroecology incorporates local knowledge, technical knowledge, traditional knowledge"—concepts that most people ideologically support—but that they doubt its effectiveness because of the persistent myth that increased production is the key to solving world hunger. How do you suggest we change the conversation from one of production to one of access and in turn promote agroecology?

HE: We all know that hunger and malnutrition cannot be solved by pushing for more production-oriented policies. There is more than enough food in the world for all. The problem is accessibility and economic inequality. Moreover, excessive production will bring us to a very dangerous dilemma regarding resources scarcity, loss of biological diversity, and eventually ecosystem failure. We still have challenges to believing in agroecology because what we always hear is only one side of the argument. We need robust research and development funding to support agroecology on one hand, and dissemination of this knowledge everywhere on the other. This is the only way to transform the agro-industry myth.    

FT: You have highlighted the necessity for women to hold land rights as a first step toward financially supporting small-scale farmers, who represent 70 to 80 percent of all farms worldwide and who produce 70 percent of the world’s food. What do you see as the remaining barriers to women's access to legally owning their land, and what steps are being taken to ensure women's access to land rights to achieve greater food security?

HE: The role of women as food producers, providers, and consumers is enormous in food systems and access to nutritious food. Unfortunately legal, economic, and cultural barriers blocked women from being effective players. Women’s land rights, as well as access to other vital resources such as to credit, scientific and technical know-how, and eventually the market are very limited worldwide. Research shows that women’s empowerment helps tremendously to eradicate hunger, poverty, and malnutrition, as well as economic development of families and countries as a whole. Therefore, countries should consider revising their legal systems as well as customary practices if they would like to deal with food security and economic development—especially in rural areas. If overall more than 60 percent of farmers are women, there is no question that they should start to reform by empowering women in agriculture and the food sector.

FT: Foreign Policy recently published an article, titled "How Feeding Syrians Feeds the War," in which they linked food aid provided by the American government via for-profit companies to continued conflict and a pattern of dependence. How would you respond to critics of programs that uphold the right to food but may unintentionally prolong the conflict in Syria?

HE: The Syrian war is a very complicated proxy war. A variety of countries, some in the region and some outside, have a stake in it. There are too many interests and too many sides. It is very hard to help civilians in such a tragedy, as parties in hot conflicts use food and water as a weapon of war, which is a grave violation of humanitarian law principles. Moreover, adding for-profit organizations to humanitarian aid can even make situations more complicated. The Syrian conflict started partly due to economic hardship in the aftermath of a long drought, and dysfunctional agricultural and subsidy policies. So, we see food crises are a triggering factor, but at the same time act as a weapon of war. At the end of the conflict, foreign aid might have a negative impact on the local market, due to dumping cheap food from outside which local producers cannot compete with. So it is very complicated and it should be done only for humanitarian purposes.

Continue reading at Food Tank