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Senior Officials Sound Alarm over Food Insecurity, Warning of Potentially ‘Biblical’ Famine, in Briefings to Security Council

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Acute food insecurity — much of it resulting from conflict, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic — is on the rise in many parts of the world and threatens to reach “biblical proportions” without immediate, swift and coherent international action to address the outbreak’s root causes, senior United Nations officials dealing with food issues told the Security Council during a 21 April videoconference[*] meeting.

The Council took up the matter in the run-up to the second anniversary of its unanimous adoption of resolution 2417 (2018), by which the 15-member organ called attention to the link between armed conflict and conflict-induced food insecurity and the threat of famine. (See Press Release SC/13354.)

Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), cited the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, released earlier in the day by saying that 135 million people in 55 countries experienced acute food insecurity in 2019 — a substantial rise over the last four years. Acute food insecurity is when a person’s inability to consume adequate food puts their lives or livelihoods in immediate danger. It draws on internationally accepted measures of extreme hunger and is considered more severe than chronic hunger, which is when a person is unable to consume enough food over an extended period to maintain a normal, active lifestyle. The report was released by FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP), the European Union and 13 other partners.

Almost 60 per cent of those people were living in the midst of conflict or instability, he said, noting that, in South Sudan, the number of people facing crisis levels of food insecurity — or worse — is likely to grow to almost 6.5 million between May and July. In Yemen, the number of people dealing with acute food insecurity is expected to exceed 17 million, and the risk of famine persists, particularly if port operations are disrupted.

“Coherent actions are needed among humanitarian, development and peace actors, to address the root causes of acute food insecurity,” he continued, emphasizing that interventions which support livelihoods and food security contribute to peace by addressing the root causes of conflict while also working towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Pointing to the Sahel, he warned that the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity in that region is expected to rise to more than 17 million during the coming lean season. Explaining that pastoralism represents one of the most viable livelihood options, he said marginalization and neglect has left pastoral communities exposed, and in many areas, relations between farmers and herders has become confrontational as they compete for scarce resources.

“We need prevention, as the forecasts for food security in 2020 look bleak,” he said, emphasizing that conflicts, extreme weather, desert locusts, economic shocks and the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to push more people into acute food insecurity. By closely monitoring the evolution of such shocks and rapid intervention, it is possible to mitigate their impacts. FAO is committed to meeting the challenge, he said, pledging that the agency will continue to provide the Council with up-to-date information and analysis to facilitate timely action to avert food crises.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), said that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 2020 was on track to see the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War amid wars in Syria and Yemen, a deepening crisis in South Sudan, locust swarms in Africa, more frequent natural disasters, and economic crisis in Lebanon, which is impacting millions of Syrian refugees. “We were already facing a perfect storm,” he said, noting that with the onset of COVID-19, the world now faces not only a global health pandemic, but also a humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians in conflict-affected countries now face a “real and dangerous possibility” of famine, he warned. Globally, 821 million people go to bed chronically hungry, he said, noting that another 135 million people face crisis levels of hunger. With the onset of COVID-19, an additional 130 million could be pushed into starvation by the end of 2020, bringing the total to 265 million people.

He said WFP is offering a lifeline to 100 million people, up from 80 million a few years ago, a figure which includes 30 million who depend on the agency to stay alive. If the agency cannot reach these people, 300,000 people could starve to death each day over a three-month period — not including the increase of starvation due to COVID-19. In a worst-case scenario, three dozen countries could face famine, and already in 10 of them, a million people per country are on the verge of starvation, often as the heavy price of conflict. He urged the Council to live up to its pledge to protect the vulnerable, outlined in resolution 2417 (2018) — the first part of a strategy needed to rescue conflict-affected countries from a “hunger pandemic” caused by COVID-19.

“There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself,” he warned, pressing the global community to come together to defeat the disease and protect most vulnerable countries from its devastating effects. Stressing that lockdowns and economic recessions are expected to result in major income loss among working poor, he said overseas remittances will also drop sharply, hurting such countries as Haiti, Nepal and Somalia, while falling tourist receipts will damage Ethiopia, where they account for 47 per cent of total exports. Collapsing oil prices will significantly impact lower-income countries, like South Sudan, where oil accounts for 98.8 per cent of total exports. He also expressed worry about the impact of falling revenues in donor countries on life-saving foreign aid.

He said WFP is doing its utmost, with a priority on assistance to children. With 1.6 billion children and young people out of school because of lockdowns, and another 370 million missing out on nutritious school meals, the agency is providing take-home rations, where possible. As the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world, WFP has also stepped in to deliver millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries. It is running humanitarian air services to help frontline health to reach those in need while the passenger airline industry is virtually shut down.

Underscoring the importance of establishing a global ceasefire, he urged all parties to conflicts to provide swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to vulnerable communities. Humanitarian goods and commercial trade must also continue flowing across borders, as they are the lifeline of global food systems and the global economy. “Supply chains have to keep moving,” he stressed, adding that countries must resist the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire. WFP is working hand-in-glove with Governments to build and strengthen national safety nets that are critical to maintaining peace, he said.

In addition, coordinated action is needed to support life-saving humanitarian assistance, he continued. For example, WFP is prepositioning three months’ worth of food in cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. It is asking donors to accelerate the $1.9 billion in pledged funding to build stockpiles and create buffers to protect the most vulnerable against such shocks as supply-chain disruptions. Furthermore, the agency is requesting $350 million to set up a network of logistic hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. WFP will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to front-line humanitarian workers, as needed.

Recalling the Council’s landmark step to recognize and condemn the devastating human toll that conflict plays in poverty and hunger, he said resolution 2417 (2018) also highlights the need for early warning systems. “Today, I’m here to raise that alarm,” he stressed, warning: “If we don’t prepare and act now to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade, we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” Indeed, the actions taken today will determine the success or failure of building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies, he said. “We do not have time on our side,” he emphasized, encouraging the Council to act wisely and fast.

Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, highlighted five areas requiring the Council’s help to overcome obstacles to reaching the hungry in times of war, when an unprecedented 70 million people are now displaced by conflict. “Starving civilians is a war crime and will never achieve legitimate objectives,” he emphasized, asking the Council to renew its commitment to breaking the cycle of conflict and food insecurity. “The Security Council must ensure investigation and accountability through a mechanism to monitor and report on humanitarian access and starvation crimes,” he stressed. “Only then will generals, commanders and politicians think twice before they deny civilians food.”

With many displaced populations depending on host communities, he noted, climate change has only deepened hunger and furthered displacement, with the vicious cycle playing out in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, including in Burkina Faso, where forced displacement has risen from 70,000 to 750,000 in the last year. Recalling his recent visit to that country before the COVID-19 crisis, he said aid groups are overstretched and underfunded. Similar relief crises are playing out from Mali to Lake Chad, and too little is being done to address the root causes, from abject poverty to lack of education and good governance. Beyond the Sahel region, there is the same need for a “real reboot” in States including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

As such, the Council must help aid agencies to ensure safe, unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need, he said, urging members to avoid politicizing the issue at a time when Governments and non-State armed groups are blatantly denying civilians relief. One type of mechanism needed is Security Council resolution 2165 (2014) on cross-border relief in Syria, he said. Pointing out that access challenges are nearly always man-made, he said Council-deployed missions must prioritize humanitarian diplomacy with parties that can eliminate obstacles to aid delivery. Citing an example, he recalled that, following reports of child starvation in Syria, convoys departed to besieged areas within 72 hours, following the creation of a task force on access that he chaired from 2016 to 2018 involving 25 influential Member States.

There is also need to strengthen the instrument of deconfliction with parties to conflict, he said. Informing parties of protected humanitarian and medical sites is a key tool to enable relief deliveries, obliging them to ensure safe and secure access. Equally important is ensuring standard exemptions for aid in counter-terrorism and sanctions regimes. For example, Somalia’s drought-related food crisis evolved into a famine in 2011 in that country’s south-central region, where sanctions imposed on Al-Shabaab complicated the response, delaying donor funding and causing risk aversion among aid agencies. Exemptions were introduced too late, and too many people died, he said, adding that many of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s 15,000 aid workers are struggling with the same situation.

In similar vein, he continued, many current COVID-19 restrictions put in place by States should include provisions allowing for coronavirus-safe humanitarian assistance to continue, by, among other things, designating aid workers as essential personnel just like medical staff. Otherwise, he warned, the current health crisis may provoke a food crisis with even graver consequences for vulnerable populations.

Monitoring, reporting and accountability mechanisms must also be strengthened, he said. Welcoming the recent Rome Statute amendment expanding the war crime of deliberate starvation due to situations of non-international armed conflicts, he urged States parties to ensure its entry into force by ratifying or accepting it.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers condemned once again the use of hunger as a weapon of war and emphasized the importance of unfettered humanitarian access, as required by international law. Several also underlined the manner in which the novel coronavirus pandemic is complicating the situation, as they pressed for the topic to remain high on the Council’s agenda going forward.

Miguel Octavio Vargas Maldonado, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Dominican Republic and Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, saying that food insecurity is a breeding ground for conflict, even more so if paired with inequality and institutional weakness. In Latin America and the Caribbean, hunger affects more than 40 million people, with undernourishment quadrupling in Venezuela between 2014 and 2018 alongside a severe economic recession and a mass exodus of people, he noted. In Haiti, where 3.7 million people live in a state of severe food insecurity, the situation requires urgent attention and international solidarity. Lessons learned from Colombia are a reminder of the vicious circle of conflict, displacement and hunger, he said. “Timely actions are needed to improve food security and nutrition and they must be understood as initiatives that contribute to peacekeeping.” Emphasizing that the topic must remain on the Council’s agenda by means of humanitarian diplomacy and peacekeeping missions, he went on to point out that many countries affected by conflict also suffer the adverse effects of climate change, an interaction that, in already vulnerable contexts, implies a serious threat for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “It is imperative to combine efforts to strengthen the pillars of peace, security, development, environment and humanitarian assistance of the United Nations,” he said, calling for greater commitment to food security at the international level.

South Africa’s representative said that increasingly, parties to conflict are using hunger as a weapon of war. That is a violation of international humanitarian law and could also constitute a war crime. To help minimize and prevent conflict-induced hunger, the Council should consider making better use of prevention and early warning systems, as well as improved coordination between humanitarian relief and development assistance, he said. The Council could also consider the impact that economic sanctions might have in aggravating hunger and malnutrition in countries in conflict. He went on to stress that peace and security go hand in hand and to end hunger, the Council must address the root causes of conflicts and end all wars “in the spirit of Silencing the Guns”.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that when struggles seem insurmountable, the world must work together “because our distinct interests, perspectives and priorities demand constructive forms of engagement”. The Government works with partners and donors to implement the Zero Hunger Trust Fund, combining social programmes for education, health, housing, employment and productivity to create a social safety net for the most vulnerable. She proposed that a similar trust fund be designed and implemented under WFP auspices to cover budgetary shortfalls that stymie the assistance offered to conflict-affected and food insecure populations. Stressing that the hazards of climate change also undermine agricultural productivity, she advocated a whole-of-system approach to end hunger by 2030, with the Council working alongside the Peacebuilding Commission, the Economic and Social Council, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), FAO and WFP to tackle the causes of insecurity across the peace, security, development and humanitarian nexus.

Indonesia’s representative said that protecting civilians, including from conflict-induced hunger, should be the Council’s core aim. Emphasizing that hunger should never be used as a method of warfare, he recommended that the Council explore innovative ways to secure respect for global norms against harming civilians. Echoing the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic, he added that the Council must facilitate measures to strengthen national capacities to protect civilians, sustain peace and ensure ongoing economic activities and food availability. He went on to state that the imperative to protect civilians must be embedded throughout the peace continuum, from conflict prevention and peacekeeping to peacebuilding and sustainable development. “For peace to flourish, sustainable development is required,” he said, describing the 2030 Agenda and the United Nations peacebuilding architecture as key tools for achieving that end.

The representative of the United States said that it is deeply troubling that, in some cases, States use hunger as a tactic of war, deploying siege tactics to prevent civilians from accessing food, and even impeding and harassing humanitarian actors trying to help. “This behaviour is cruel and inexcusable under any circumstance, and especially so in the midst of a global health crisis,” she said. With humanitarian needs at unprecedented levels, the Council must call out those States that are failing to uphold their most basic responsibility to protect the people within their borders. She went on to call for improved coordination between humanitarian, development and peace actors, and for priority to be accorded to the timely and reliable financing of relief aid.

The United Kingdom’s representative said that while COVID-19 will claim many lives, “it’s a sad reality that every year many people will also die from food insecurity caused by conflict”. Humanitarian aid is important, but it is a last resort and a sign of political failure. Spotlighting the situations in Yemen and Syria, he said that it is “unacceptable, illegal and inhumane” to use hunger as a weapon of war. The Council must be prepared to take robust action to ensure that humanitarian assistance flows to those in need, he said, recalling that resolution 2417 (2018) enables Council members to consider targeted sanctions on those who obstruct aid delivery and distribution.

China’s representative said that the COVID-19 pandemic and the breakdown of the global industrial chain have affected Member States’ economies and food security. In addition, desert locust infestations in Africa and Asia are increasing global food security risks. Against that backdrop, it is imperative to prevent and resolve conflicts, promote the political settlement of hotspot issues and support reconstruction and peacebuilding in conflict areas. Meanwhile, he called on the international community to take joint action to ensure an unobstructed global supply chain, maintain food price stability, lift all unilateral sanctions, reduce tariff barriers, facilitate trade and ensure the uninterrupted global supply of food and agricultural products.

Also participating were representatives of Estonia, Germany, Russian Federation, France, Tunisia, Belgium, Niger and Viet Nam.

[*] Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.