Special Rapporteur on right to food concludes urgent mission to Niger

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, today concluded his urgent mission to Niger which started on 8 July. He was accompanied on the mission by several assistants and a United Nations television team. Mr. Ziegler released the following statement:

"The Special Rapporteur has witnessed the extreme gravity of the food situation in Niger. Some 3.6 million people, including 800,000 children, are facing acute malnutrition, which at any moment could turn into a famine. This situation is the result of the drought and the locust invasion that destroyed all the crops in 2004, striking a country already suffering from structural and permanent food insecurity.

The Government has divided the country into 106 surveillance zones. Only 19 of these zones are in a satisfactory food situation. In all other zones, the situation is either critical or extremely critical. In some pockets of famine, vulnerable persons, in particular children under five, are already dying.

During his field visits, in particular to Ouallam and Tondikiwindi, the Special Rapporteur realized that in order to survive, thousands of peasants are already reduced to subsisting on seeds gathered from termite mounds, roots and poisonous fruits called Anza. There has been an exodus of men. The undernourished women are too weak to work in the fields and children show signs of serious under nourishment.

The next harvest of millet, the basic food item in Niger, is not expected before October 2005. In light of the unpredictable weather conditions, the amount of the upcoming harvest is uncertain.

The Special Rapporteur thanked the Government for its welcome and the transparent manner in which it answered his questions. The Special Rapporteur was received by His Excellency the President of the Republic, His Excellency the Prime Minister, the Minister for Rural Development, Animal Resources and the Promotion of Women and Children, as well as the directors in charge of the national mechanism for the prevention and management of crises, of the Food Crisis Unit, of the Office for Food Production of Niger and of the Early Warning System. He met with leaders of the presidential majority party as well as the parliamentary opposition and civil society.

The Special Rapporteur supports the initiatives taken by the Government to address the current situation, in particular the sale of reserve stocks at a controlled and reasonable price, the use of grain banks and the provision of fodder to farmers. However, the Special Rapporteur asks the Government to immediately begin free distribution of food to vulnerable groups (children, pregnant women, elderly persons) to ensure their survival. He also asks the Government to guarantee with immediate effect free access to health units set up to assist undernourished children.

Despite the impressive efforts made by the national authorities, the food situation is of extreme concern. United Nations agencies (including UNICEF, FAO, WFP, UNDP, WHO, UNFPA, and the World Bank) and international non-governmental organizations (MSF, Action against Hunger, Oxfam, World Vision, Plan International) are playing a critical role in the current situation within their dangerously limited means. The international community's response in the fact of the current tragedy in Niger has been totally inadequate.

The United Nations' urgent appeal which was launched in May 2005 has unfortunately failed. The urgent appeal was aimed at raising additional funds necessary to cover essential needs for the population until the end of September 2005. Some $16.2 million were requested, but to date, only $ 3.8 million has been received.

The Special Rapporteur recalled that under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States parties have the obligation to respond quickly and in an appropriate manner to emergency food situations on the territory of a State Member of the United Nations. The Special Rapporteur requested that Member States immediately honour their legal obligations and ensure the realization of the right to food of the suffering population of Niger".

For use of the information media; not an official record