The right to food | An interview with Hilal Elver

Hilal-Elver-for-webHilal Elver is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. She grew up in Turkey, where she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Ankara Law School and began her teaching career. Her expertise was soon pressed into government service when the Turkish government appointed her as the founding legal advisor to the Ministry of the Environment. Later, they asked her to serve as the General Director of Women’s Status.

She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Law School, where she worked on the International Environmental Law Convention on Hazardous Materials and International Rivers. Following that work, she was appointed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as Chair of Environmental Diplomacy at University of Malta.

Returning to the U.S. in 1996, she resumed her university teaching career, while continuing to work on environmental issues, human security, climate change, and food security. She also earned a Doctor of Judicial Science (SJD) from UCLA Law School.

Dr. Elver is now a research professor and co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her publications have focused mainly on international environmental law, women’s rights and international human rights law. Her book, Peaceful Uses of International Rivers: Case of Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, was published in 2002, and her most recent, The Headscarf Controversy, Secularism and Freedom of Religion, was published in 2012 by the Oxford University Press.

She has been a contributor to numerous textbooks and academic journals on the topics of global justice, new constitutionalism, secularism, women’s rights, water rights, environmental security, climate change diplomacy and food security. She was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in May 20014 and began acting in that capacity in June 2014.

She spoke with The MOON from her home in Santa Barbara, California.

Leslee Goodman

The MOON: What is the path you took to become the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food?

 Elver: The UN conducted a global search, and people who had the specified educational and professional background applied. A long list of candidates was narrowed down to a short list by the members of the Human Rights Council. Individuals on the short list were interviewed and three candidates were identified. The president of the HRC—which rotates among the HRC every year—had the right to make the selection, and he selected me. His decision had to then be approved by the entire Human Rights Council.

I’m an international law professor and used to teach in Turkey. I also was the founding legal advisor of Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and was General Director of the Women’s Status in the Office of the Prime Minister. UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program, also appointed me chair of environmental diplomacy at the University of Malta. I was a member of the climate change negotiations for the Turkish government, and also a member of the intellectual committee of the least developed countries. So I had an appropriate academic background, UN experience, and a body of work in this area that qualified me.

The MOON: I read that the U.S. condemned your appointment when it was made public. What does the U.S. government have against you?

Elver: A small Geneva NGO called UN Watch came out against my appointment, not because of my qualifications, but because I am married to Richard Falk, who was the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967, whose position expired in June 2014. This NGO consistently and irresponsibly accused my husband of being anti-Semitic, and I was presumed guilty merely as a result of being his wife. I was also falsely alleged to be collaborating with his writings on the Palestine-Israel conflict. This accusation has no basis in fact. The U.S. government did not oppose my appointment. The United States is a member of the Human Rights Council. If I was appointed they must not have voted against me, as the decision is based on consensus. So it was just a politically motivated publicity campaign mounted by this small NGO, which is preoccupied with defending Israel against all forms of criticism, and in my case, criticism I never even made.

The MOON: You created a bit of a stir with your remarks at a September 19 Agroecology Conference in Amsterdam, which was sponsored by the Transnational Institute. What was controversial about your talk?

Elver: Again, I wouldn’t characterize my talk as controversial. Agroecology should not be a controversial subject; it should be a topic we are able to discuss. The Amsterdam conference was structured as a debate, however. Sharing the platform with me was the Dutch Minister of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs, who was much more an advocate of corporate agribusiness. This is understandable because the Dutch government leads the exports by the major food companies. I was presenting the agroecology viewpoint as a result of my background in environmental law and sustainable development. If you really believe in sustainable development you have to realize that conventional agribusiness models are extremely resource-intensive in terms of water, soil, and petroleum-based energy. Agroecology, on the other hand, reconciles the needs of the planet—the ecology—with the needs of human beings for food. This is increasingly important in light of climate change. So agroecology should not be considered controversial, but necessary.

The MOON: The Green Revolution is credited with feeding the world and preventing famine and starvation. Do you agree with that assessment?

Elver: Yes and no. Certainly the Green Revolution created great leaps in production. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Green Revolution was considered the solution to food shortages and scarcity. But unfortunately, the Green Revolution also created environmental problems because of its heavy use of chemicals and artificial fertilizers. The Green Revolution is not sustainable. Also, in many places, it was implemented to increase agricultural products for export; not to feed local populations. In fact, it forced many farmers out of business. That’s why we’re seeing many local uprisings against these methods. I don’t believe we can rely on the Green Revolution as a way of providing food security going forward. Moreover we are in 21st century now, and Green Revolution methods, which are based on increased production, are no longer compatible with the conditions of our planet. The Green Revolution might have been helpful in certain countries in the 20th century, but not now.

The MOON: But aren’t the Green Revolution’s methods—including petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds and GMOs—continuing to be recommended to, or imposed upon, developing nations, and perhaps most notably in Africa?



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One Response to The right to food | An interview with Hilal Elver

  1. Jim Becket November 3, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    Excellent interview! A worthy successor to Olivier du Schutter and hopefully agroecology will get a wider and fairer hearing against the millions spent by Big Ag and Big Food. But Dr. Elver laid out very well contemporary thought of agrocology as the true solution to ‘feeding the world’ and providing a livelihood for the small farmers of the world.
    Alas politics and money play a huge role as was unfortunately seen in her recounting of the opposition to her appointment based on the courageous work of her husband.
    May her voice be widely heard.

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