U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Brings an Urgent Message to the Law School

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and The Earth Institute at Columbia University Welcomed U.N. Appointee Hilal Elver to Discuss International Law and the Right to Food

New York, November 2, 2015—“When you are a Special Rapporteur and no one is angry at you, you’re not doing your job right,” said Hilal Elver, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, during an Oct. 21 address to students and faculty at Columbia Law School. 

Elver spoke about her work as a guest of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and The Earth Institute at Columbia University, explaining the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, an expert appointed by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The position is official but fully independent, as the expert is not a paid staff member of the United Nations.
The right to food is the right to regular, permanent and unrestricted access to adequate and sufficient food in line with local cultural traditions. By determining what kind of entitlement is right for each county and each area, and by separating policy issues from rights issues, Elver said, global hunger might be eradicated, a monumental goal the U.N. hopes to reach by 2030.
Michael B. Gerrard, the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice anddirector of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, introduced Elver. She is, a research professor and co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Elver said the right to food remains surprisingly controversial because of the misconception it means “sit at home and wait for food” and because it falls into the category of economic and social rights, as opposed to civil and political rights, which are more universally understood and protected. The Rapporteur’s reports, then, are often “controversial from a government’s perspective, or from the U.N.’s, but it’s important to raise the issues to the public,” Elver said.
“We have to constantly make sure these human rights are indivisible,” she said, noting 795 million people in the world are chronically hungry and 2 billion are malnourished, which includes both the under- and over-nourished, a measurable statistic for the past 10 years. “Because of the global economic order, right-to-food issues are not universally recognized as basic human rights, or a justiciable rights.”
Following the lecture, questions led to topics like crisis and disaster areas, refugees and migration. Elver cited Syria and Yemen, where food aid is being blocked: “These are crimes against humanity. Maybe one day they will be punished.”
Elver’s career began in Ankara, Turkey, where she taught at Ankara Law School and was the founding legal advisor to Turkey's Ministry of the Environment. In 1994, she was appointed to the United Nations Environment Program’s Chair in Environmental Diplomacy at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, University of Malta. Since June 2014, when she began her current work with the U.N., Elver has monitored the right to food globally. Before Elver’s tenure, the position was held by Olivier De Schutter, a former visiting professor at Columbia Law School.
Columbia Law School has made significant contributions to the development of the legal structures needed to address climate change, which is factually linked to issues like food and water insecurity. As one of the world’s preeminent law schools, Columbia’s faculty has an unsurpassed depth in the many legal disciplines that can be harnessed to address these critical issues.
The Sabin Center works closely with governments, nongovernmental groups, and academic organizations, as well as scientists at Columbia University's Earth Institute.The Sabin Center develops legal techniques to fight climate change, trains students and lawyers, and provides up-to-date resources on key topics in climate law and regulation.