19 May Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: Reflections on UNSC 2417 – A Preventative Tool, an Accountability Response, or Both?
[Global Rights Compliance (GRC) is a niche organisation that specialises in legal services associated with violations of international law. For more on GRC’s work on conflict and hunger, see here. For more on GRC’s accountability work, click here.]
Three years ago, the UN Security Council Resolution 2417 (UNSC 2417) recognised for the first time the intrinsic link between hunger and conflict. This landmark resolution condemns the use of starvation as a method of warfare, emphasizing that it may constitute a war crime.
Significantly, UNSC 2417 shifted the debate on food security where it needed to go, away from discussions on climate change, relief operations and poverty, and into the arena of peace and security. It can rightly be described as a norm-setting resolution, akin to UNSC 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security. The transformative potential of such resolutions cannot be overstated, and we hope with continued engagement and implementation that UNSC 2417 can go on acting as a consensus-building tool to prevent violations and cajole compliance with international law.
After a lull in the momentum surrounding conflict and hunger, the issue (likely driven by the current scale and gravity of food insecurity) is back on a high-level agenda, with renewed action at the UNSC, a newly-created UN Secretary-General (UNSG) High-Level Task Force on Famine (HLTF), a focus on conflict in the upcoming UN Global Food Systems Summit, and the G7 adopting a Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Crises Compact at its 2021 summit.
As we approach UNSC 2417’s third birthday, we may consider it to be having something of an identity crisis. Is it a preventative tool or an accountability response and can it be both? We conclude here that it can, and indeed, should be both. This issue will be discussed further in GRC’S expert webinar on 19 May. Given the array of conflict settings where food is being weaponised against the civilian population, UNSC 2417 faces a test as to its agility and efficacy (see GRC’s piece related to this on Tigray and Alex de Waal’s damming account here).
Scope and purpose of UNSC 2417
The resolution creates a mechanism for UNSC action on the issue of starvation by requiring the UNSG to provide information on conflict-induced famine and food insecurity when any such risk arises and as part of their annual reporting. As such, resolution 2417 aims not only to achieve prohibitive and accountability objectives, but to also operate as an essential preventative tool to protect civilians. Beyond the UNSC, states can also play a vital role in implementing the resolution, as outlined below in the recommendations.
Current conflict and hunger situations
Protracted conflict remains the primary driver of starvation. The 2021 Global Report on Food Crises highlighted that in 2020, nearly 100 million people (a sharp increase from 77 million in 2019) facing acute hunger lived in places affected by conflict/insecurity, with Yemen, South Sudan, and Burkina Faso experiencing catastrophe-level food crises. Whilst these conflicts are exacerbated by climatic effects, volatile economic conditions, COVID-19 and layered with subsidiary conflicts over scarce resources, including water, farmland, pastures and grazing, it remains clear that confronting alarming rates of global food insecurity must incorporate the link to conflict. Therefore, it is essential to effectively operationalise UNSC 2417 to address conflict-induced hunger.
How UNSC 2417 is “triggered”
There is no formal mechanism by which resolution 2417 is “triggered”. The resolution requires that information regarding any risk of a food crisis and famine fuelled by armed violence be reported to the UNSC and that the UNSC give its “full attention” to the matter when so apprised.
The UNSG notifies the Security Council about hunger driven by conflict as part of the annual report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Apart from the UNSG’s reports, the UNSC has till date been briefed on an ad hoc basis, through the submission of confidential White Papers by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), regarding South Sudan in July 2018, Yemen in October 2018, and the DRC, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen in September 2020.
Impact of and recent developments regarding UNSC 2417
UN Action: Resolutions and Mandates
Following the White Paper briefing on South Sudan in 2018, the UNSC swiftly passed resolution 2428, imposing an arms embargo, targeted sanctions and recognising the “conflict-induced food insecurity and threat of famine” prevalent in the country. The Yemen White Paper ultimately led to the adoption of resolution 2451 in December 2018, which explicitly called on the warring parties to protect objects indispensable to civilians.
In addition to acting on OCHA briefings, UNSC members have also held informal meetings to review the bi-annual FAO and WFP report. These informal discussions have been complemented by thematic debates on conflict and hunger, convened at the initiative of the Council president, in April 2020 (that led to the issuance of a Presidential Statement following up on the measures laid out in resolution 2417 and additionally emphasising support for early warning systems) and in March 2021 (discussed below).
Beyond providing a structure through which the UNSC has addressed conflict and hunger issues, UNSC 2417 has also engaged more widely in normalising the issue of starvation. As noted in GRC’s Introduction to this Symposium, the language of humanitarian access, conflict-induced food insecurity, and associated violations have crept into other resolutions, mandates, and is starting to be given the pre-eminence it demands. For instance, UNSC resolutions 2459 and 2514 on South Sudan noted the impact of food insecurity and condemned the targeting of humanitarian (including, food) supplies. Regarding the ongoing conflict in Tigray, the Council issued a Presidential Statement on 22 April, calling for “a scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access to all people in need, including in the context of the food security situation.” Mostrecently, UNSC resolution 2573 on the protection of objects indispensable to civilians, unanimously adopted on 27 April 2021, recalled resolution 2417, condemned the starvation of civilians and urged parties to armed conflicts to ensure the proper functioning of food systems and markets. This reflects 2417’s position as a norm-setting resolution, recognising the interconnection between access to food sources, adequate infrastructure, and humanitarian assistance, and the need place this trifecta at the bedrock of initiatives aimed at protecting civilians.
In addition to the growing use of language emanating from UNSC 2417, the resolution has been used to inform the normative and operative framework of field missions. UNSC 2417 has been explicitly referenced in the renewal mandates of the UN mission in South Sudan (resolution 2567) and the African Union mission in Somalia (resolutions 2431, 2472, 2520, 2568).
A further key recent development has been the UNSG’s establishment in March 2021 of the HLTF. The HLTF outlined its plan to take a system-wide approach to preventing famine- focusing on advocacy, resource mobilisation, improving humanitarian access, facilitating better data collaboration, and building on existing mechanisms. As a priority, the HLTF is looking at situations in Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria. The HLTF’s push towards more coordinated action is an important step towards improving on the current state of decentralised activity and ad hoc responses.
Investigative and Accountability Mechanisms
There has been a clear trend in including starvation in investigative mandates. In its most recent report, the Human Rights Council (HRC) Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen relied on the provisions of UNSC 2417 as part of their legal analysis of the factual situation on the ground, towards determining the violation of the right to adequate food. The mandate of the HRC Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has also explicitly recognised the use of starvation during war, most recently in a March 2021 resolution. Significantly, the Commission released a landmark report where for the first time starvation was exclusively investigated. This expands their routine examination of conflict-induced hunger as part of their regular reporting (see e.g. here and here).
Conflict-driven food insecurity has also featured more prominently in accountability processes, with the ICC Prosecutor making explicit reference to the destruction of food sources prompting mass displacement in the request (at paragraph 111) to investigate crimes committed against the Rohingya people and submissions being made before the International Court of Justice on the forced starvation and food supply deprivations suffered by Rohingya in Myanmar.
Undoubtedly the momentum generated from UNSC 2417 aided the path to the successful Swiss-led Rome Statute amendment to include the war crime of starvation in a non-international armed conflict. The amendment enhances the protection of civilians during conflicts, aligns the Rome Statute with the position in international humanitarian and customary international law, and pushes the accountability envelope, encouraging states to mirror these legal provisions in their domestic laws. Similar to UNSC 2417, the amendment could act as a much-needed catalyst in changing public perception on the crime of starvation.
In short, the influence of the norms contained in UNSC 2417 on subsequent action and mandates is a testament to the resolution’s relevance to both preventative and accountability endeavours.
Challenges to implementation and the strengthening of action under UNSC 2417
Notwithstanding the impact UNSC 2417 has had on galvanizing action around conflict-induced starvation, there remain barriers to its effective implementation. Early critics have noted some of its weaknesses and we have identified areas for reinforcement. Below, we outline some of the principal challenges and recommend solutions:
At the UNSC:
First, the lack of a formal reporting mechanism to the UNSG and UNSC. As outlined above, starvation issues have been raised ad hoc at the Security Council. This limits the extent to which some actors (i.e., humanitarian aid workers who must balance their mandate against operational realities) can provide relevant information in a secure and timely manner, leading to delays in, or even a lack of reporting of relevant and actionable information. The establishment of the HLTF is a step towards ensuring better coordination of action and data. However, the HLTF’s mandate is focused on preventing famine in critical situations, whether conflict-driven or not.
Recommendations: Establish a focal point for UNSC 2417, perhaps as part of the HLTF, and procedures to ensure that stakeholders can securely (and if necessary, anonymously) submit verified, up-to-date information on country and conflict-specific situations. Additionally, look to implementing a transparent process by which resolution 2417 is triggered. Enhance formal reporting by requesting the UNSG to report to the UNSC within no more than 30 days, and thereafter every 30 days, on emerging situations, highlighting humanitarian access violations and attacks on objects indispensable to civilians’ survival. These measures would enhance the UNSC’s ability to adopt preventative (rather than reactive) decisions and more proactively enforce UNSC 2417.
Second, as we noted on the second anniversary of UNSC 2417 last year, despite the existence of a solid normative framework for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, compliance has been weak. This continues to date, with shocking violations currently occurring globally and grave alarm-bells ringing in Ethiopia and Yemen in particular.
Recommendation: Urge the UNSC to take action to address violations, including by supporting or requesting investigations, referring appropriate situations to the ICC, and imposing sanctions.
There is wavering political will to condemn, investigate, prosecute and hold accountable those who deliberately starve civilians. Despite the unanimous adoption of UNSC 2417, states remains divided on this issue, as reflected during the latest UNSC debate on conflict and hunger in March 2021 and the Council’s inability to agree on even a non-binding Presidential Statement. Underlying such division may well be a lack of understanding of some of the legal grey areas surrounding humanitarian access and starvation, as well as the perpetuation of myths regarding the confluence of conflict-induced hunger and other causal factors like climate change.
Recommendations: States must invest in initiatives to increase the understanding of civil society and justice system actors regarding the legal framework governing starvation as a method of warfare as well as the root causes of acute food insecurity and the particular impact of armed violence. Alongside this, it is essential that states effectively criminalize starvation as a method of warfare, including by ratifying the Rome Statute amendment. This would go towards building the capacity of relevant actors to take prohibitive action to curtail criminal starvation. States must also pursue accountability through timely investigations, evidence-preservation, prosecutions, and establish the necessary institutions/mechanisms for the same, such as the recently established joint OHCHR-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigation into the Tigray conflict.
About the authors: Global Rights Compliance (GRC) is a niche organisation that specialises in legal services associated with violations of international law. For more on GRC’s work on conflict and hunger see www.starvationaccountability.org. For more on GRC’s accountability work see http://www.globalrightscompliance.com.