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STORY IN FOCUS, INTERVIEW WITH HILAL ELVER, UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON THE RIGHT TO FOOD

Hilal Elver is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Q1: Please can you explain your role as SR for Food, when you were appointed and the duration of your term and mandate?

My role as Special Rapporteur (SR) on the right to food is to promote and monitor the implementation of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR) at the global level. I was appointed as SR in July of 2014 and will complete my term in Spring of 2020. As the SR, I have issued nine thematic reports addressing current and emerging issues in relation to right to adequate food.  I have conducted eight “mission trips” to States of interest to investigate the right to food at national level, and have reported on whether those countries are respecting, protecting and fulfilling their responsibilities derived from the ICESCR. Twice a year, I have presented the latest reports to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and to the UN General Assembly 3rd committee in New York. Besides these responsibilities, I am an Advisory Group member of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the most comprehensive global governing body on food policy, and work closely with the CFS on its policy-making activities. Moreover, I cooperate and work with other UN institutions, especially Rome-based Agencies (FAO, WFP and IFAD), several governments that are friendly with the right to food mandate, as well as Civil Society Organizations and Universities to advise, cooperate, and participate in their events relevant to the right to food.

 

Q2: Your tenure as SR has witnessed the re-emergence of famines and severe food insecurity globally, how has this shaped your mandate and missions?

Yes, unfortunately, in my time as SR, the amount of people who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition has increased rather than decreased. As of today, this figure has reached approximately 821 Million, an 11 % increase since 2005. This is an alarming development, to say the least. One of the major reasons for this trajectory is conflicts and extreme weather events.  Often, these two factors converge, with one triggering the other, creating serious levels of hunger and malnutrition in the affected areas. Undoubtedly, this pattern has influenced my work as SR and as a result, I issued reports on climate change, conflict situations, as well as natural disasters and emergency assistance, all in the context of the right to food.  Regrettably, UN rules prohibit me from visiting countries in conflict zones in my capacity as SR, and our missions require an invitation from the hosting countries, so I have not been able to visit countries experiencing ongoing conflict.

 

Q3: Do you encounter in your work with States and relevant stakeholders any confusion between the obligations enshrined in the right to food and the crime of starvation, and if so how do you tackle this problem?

Yes, of course.

Unfortunately, some States and stakeholders erroneously consider the right to food as an obligation that exists only during times of peace, but not in emergencies. The ICESCR, however, makes no distinction between times of peace and emergency or conflict situations. The rights contained in the ICESCR, including the right to food, are applicable at all times, and States are primarily responsible for realizing these rights.

Moreover, States have a positive responsibility to act in order to help people in times of difficulties, with priority to the most vulnerable.  International human rights law and international humanitarian law (IHL) do not place limits on these responsibilities or allow States to derogate from the ICESCR, even in times of conflict.  Although IHL does not specifically mention the right to food, its principles clearly protect people from hunger, protect productive resources necessary to maintain food stuff, etc., and prohibit any attacks on areas that are important for food production.

Nevertheless, most of the time, you feel that there is a disconnect between IHL and the right to food, and a lack of understanding about State responsibilities during times of conflict or emergency continues. Arguably, this disconnect is often more of a deliberate refusal to uphold obligations than a simple misunderstanding.

During times of conflict and emergency, States are also unable to easily execute responsibilities, or their capabilities are significantly reduced. It is too easy for States to use food and water as weapons of war, especially if animosity towards people is very high, and weaponizing such essentials to survival has historically been effective at causing tremendous harm.  Despite condemning this practice as a severe criminal act, Special Rapporteurs, as part of the UN human rights system, have no power to intervene beyond “naming and shaming” those responsible.

Therefore, I believe that our reports and actions should be empowered by the UN’s security apparatus. This is the only way to remind States that their human rights obligations do not end in times of emergency, and that if they deliberately use food as a weapon, or siege innocent civilians to gain political benefits, they have committed a crime and they should be punished.

This applies not just to States but to armed resistance groups as well.

Thus far, we have not seen a single State or armed group punished for the deliberate starvation of innocent people. This needs to change.

Special Rapporteurs should send communications and allegations letters to governments when there is evidence of deliberate starvation. Though this action would not immediately bring those responsible to justice, it would make the atrocity publicly known within the international community and it might help stop further harm.

 

Q4: You were on a panel with our managing partner Wayne Jordash QC during HRC 39 in Geneva which looked at man-made famines and deliberate starvation, here you talked about how the crime of starvation has been neglected, an area we focus on in our ‘Mass Starvation’ Project with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can you identify what political or perceived blockages you have encountered which have contributed to this neglect?

As I mentioned above, the current design and mechanisms of the UN human rights system are not strong enough to change the behaviours of States. The field of International Criminal Law, however, after many years of stalling in its development and application, along with the establishment of International Criminal Court, has been significantly advanced.

Deliberate starvation is widely accepted as a crime by the international law community, either as a war crime or a crime against humanity, but there has not been a single case brought before courts, domestic or international. There are technical reasons for this inaction; for example, it is considered extremely difficult to prove intent, and starvation or famine is a slow and silent onset that the international community ignores until it results in mass death. Also, starvation generally occurs in conjunction with other grave crimes that are more likely to be the focus of a case. More importantly, there does not seem to be enough political will to stop such impunity among important States that have veto power in the UN Security Council.

This wide impunity encourages States and armed militias to use starvation as a very cheap weapon without hesitation. The international community should stop this impunity and the recent Resolution of the UNSC 2417 is an important step forward.

We need to encourage States to build political will necessary to articulate a clear law for the crime of starvation, and to politically commit themselves to prosecute it in the event of a violation.

 

Q5: You also talked about how “contrary to popular belief, casualties resulting directly from combat usually make up only a small proportion of deaths in conflict zones, with most individuals in fact perishing from hunger and diseases”. We have explored with our partner organisation The World Peace Foundation, the fact that those that die from these non-violent means are often treated as ‘second-class victims’ and often lack the recognition of war fatalities. Can you discuss this further?

This is a very important point. The real victims of conflict are not only the people who take up arms and go to battle, but women, children and the elderly who stay at home in their villages and struggle with a shortage of food, water, and medicine. Women and girls are exposed to sexual or other violence, sometimes in an attempt to secure food and water for their families. Infectious diseases and malnutrition—the lasting impacts of which continue from generation to generation—do not cause immediate noise within the context of a louder conflict. Still, the impact of malnutrition destroys human capacity if it strikes children within the first 2 years of life, even for only a short period of time.  It is our role to give the afflicted a voice, and to amplify their calls.

As human rights defender, I believe that we have obligation to express these issues on international platforms, not only by writing long UN reports, but also by using media, films, pictures, and conferences to show the world that the impact of conflict is far deeper than the lines of soldiers killed in battle.

The negative impact of conflict extends for decades, generations even when it comes to protracted crises, and may cause waves of forced migration and internal displacement.

 

Q6: You recently launched a fantastic new website, could you tell us more about that?

My consultant Melissa Shapiro made this wonderful website alone. I am very grateful to her for this. In my conflict report, I recommended that States and relevant stakeholders in the international community work towards a global convention to prevent famine. Such an instrument may not be necessary if we lived in perfect world. There are enough laws and principles that could be easily interpreted as defining famine is a severe crime, punishable by international courts or in domestic courts by applying universal jurisdiction against perpetrators.

However, from the positivist law perspective, having a clear definition of the crime through a specific convention may help to stop impunity. Criminal law tends to be more strictly implemented than other areas of international law, it is important to make a clear-cut legal definition of the crime of famine that will make it more justiciable.

Also we can consider some of the actions that will not rise to the level of criminality, but which are dangerous in the long run. So, having a convention that has teeth to prevent famine before it occurs is a vital step. As I mentioned in my report, the convention should include other important remedies to prevent and punish famine, similar to the Genocide Convention or Apartheid Convention. A draft convention also raises the argument of whether the international community has enough political will to come together and discuss such an instrument.  As a first step, the International Law Commission should start to work with the Human Rights Council and international law experts. We need to further articulate this idea.

 

Q7: What information concerning the law or practice would better equip you to successfully deliver upon your mandate and raise awareness of the right to food and starvation crimes?

It is very important to follow reports and findings from various UN organizations, humanitarian agencies, international law experts and civil society mechanisms to warn us about potential dangers before they arrive. Because most of the time, due to delay, it is difficult to reverse course, and to effectively intervene. We need to rely on and to further develop early warning systems that will help us act timely and protect against violations of the right to food. It is also important for my mandate to have sufficient information about ongoing conflicts so that I may increase the awareness and respond accurately and swiftly within my capacity. So, cooperated action among all stakeholders is necessary and vital.

Keeping the issue of the right to food and starvation crimes alive and active in the international agenda is also important for progressing the conversation and enacting change in years to come.

The international community should be ready, politically and financially, to tackle this issue, because at the end of the day, conflict affects all of us, no matter where we live.

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