Faculty Focus: Professor Smita Narula

Haub Distinguished Professor of International Law

Born in New Delhi, Professor Smita Narula spent her childhood in South and Southeast Asia before moving to the United States. Inspired by her parents’ work with the U.N., she knew early on that she wanted to engage in human rights work. After law school, Professor Narula accepted a fellowship at Human Rights Watch and remained with the organization for six years, first as an India researcher, and later as Senior Researcher for South Asia. In these capacities, she helped found India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and the International Dalit Solidarity Network, organizations dedicated to advancing the right to equality for more than 260 million people affected by caste discrimination worldwide.

She began her academic career as a clinical professor at NYU School of Law where she taught the International Human Rights Clinic and served as Faculty Director for the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. During her time at NYU, she was appointed legal advisor to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Prior to joining Haub Law in 2018 as the inaugural Distinguished Haub Chair in International Law, Professor Narula was a Distinguished Lecturer and Interim Director of the Human Rights Program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.

Your research interests and areas of expertise include international law, environmental law, food systems law, and human rights law – what is it about those areas that hold your interest?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in the capacity of law to deliver justice and enable systems change. International environmental law and international human rights law each embody a profound vision for who we want to be as a society. These visions are lofty, and their implementation is increasingly urgent, but these international treaties exist in frameworks that often lack enforcement capacity and are embedded in a model of development that is fueled by destructive cycles of extraction, production, consumption, and waste. The environmental and human rights implications of these systems are vast, including in the realm of food. I am drawn to food systems law because how we grow food, and how we treat the people and communities that feed us, holds enormous implications for human rights and for environmental health.

My prior scholarship has focused on the issue of social and economic inequality, its causes and consequences, and the ability of international human rights law to challenge structural discrimination and confront current conditions of economic globalization and development-led displacement. In these articles, I have sought to close gaps in normative and accountability frameworks that undermine effective implementation of human rights guarantees, while simultaneously cautioning that these guarantees cannot be delivered solely through legal platforms or by State actors alone. Rather, these guarantees must be assured through a process of political and social mobilization that in turn compels domestic and global actors to undertake key institutional reforms. I have also developed a considerable body of work on the nexus between law and human rights in South Asia, including the human rights implications of caste systems.

What are some of your current research interests and projects?

My current scholarship explores how social movements are using the narratives and frameworks of food sovereignty and climate justice to address environmental crises, ensure human rights, and inform the trajectory of law from the ground up.

My article “Confronting State Violence: Lessons from India’s Farmer Protests,” was recently published by Columbia Human Rights Law Review. In December 2021, following a year of sustained mass protests, farmers in India forced the repeal of three controversial Farm Laws that attempted to deregulate India’s agricultural sector in service of corporate interests. I argue that these historic protests arose in response not only to the Farm Laws, but also to decades of state-sponsored ecological and economic violence that have relegated millions of Indian farmers to a state of precarity and desperation. I further argue that the protests hold key insights for social movements around the globe, and for the future of food in India and beyond. The article analyzes the farmers’ protests using a four-part paradigm to assess contemporary movements for social change: Roots, Resistance, Reform, and Reconstruction.

My current project seeks to answer the question, “Can a Right to a Healthy Environment Deliver Climate Justice?” Climate justice is a concept used to frame climate change, and its impacts, as an ethical, political, and moral issue, and not just an environmental issue. It does so by relating the effects of climate change to concepts of justice—particularly environmental and social justice—and by recognizing that those who are bearing the brunt of climate change have contributed the least to the climate crisis. The article explores the potential and challenges of using a right to a healthy environment (RTHE), which was recently recognized by the U.N. General Assembly, as a tool to remedy climate injustices. I argue that while a standalone RTHE will not cure some of the structural deficiencies of international human rights law—namely the limits to its extraterritorial application and its inability to hold private actors accountable—it can potentially be used as a tool to compel some high-emitting States to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions and regulate the activities of fossil fuel companies.

Why did you want to become a professor?

Teaching isn’t something I always knew I wanted to do but once I began (first as an adjunct professor at Columbia University more than 20 years ago) I was hooked. I have also long been engaged in research and writing as a means of exploring and advancing human rights law and its protections. The ability to combine these interests, and to be part of a dedicated community of scholars and practitioners, is something that no other profession affords. I also do not take lightly the responsibility of teaching the next generation of lawyers who have in front of them a formidable task given the various crises we face. My aim is to ensure that our students graduate with the confidence, insight, and legal skills needed to take on these challenges and to do so in a manner that is both impactful and personally fulfilling.

What advice do you have for law students who want to gain experience in human rights law?

I first tell them that the path to practicing human rights law is not always straight forward, and in fact can be quite circuitous. There are many professional experiences that can serve as useful stepping stones toward a human rights career, including pro bono work at a law firm or work with the human rights section of a bar association. I also remind students of the importance of getting their papers published. Publications serve an important credentialing function. They signal one’s interests and expertise to potential employers and, as I remind my students, also help strengthen their own voice while shaping key debates in the human rights field.

An interesting and impressive fact that I learned about you is that you speak five languages – French, Hindi, Spanish, Urdu, and English – tell me more about that and how it has impacted you and your career.

Although English was my first language, I grew up in a Hindi and Urdu speaking household (I also watched a lot of Bollywood films growing up which helped these languages stick!). I learned French and Spanish at the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York. I feel very lucky to have been exposed to so many languages. It has served me well in my professional work (investigating human rights abuses in India, for example, or advocating for human rights reforms with U.N. member states). And on a more personal level it has deepened my sense of belonging and connection with communities across cultures and borders.

Aside from law, how do you spend your spare time?

Outside of work I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. After so much time having to be apart, being able to be together again feels like a gift, and something we can no longer take for granted. I also enjoy practicing meditation and yoga and listening to music from around the world, which brings me a great deal of joy.