Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: What is Needed to Trigger Real Action in the Application of UNSCR 2417?

Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: What is Needed to Trigger Real Action in the Application of UNSCR 2417?

[Brian Lander and Rebecca Vetharaniam Richards work for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), respectively as Deputy Director of the Emergency Division and Chief of Emergencies & Transitions Programme & Policy. The views stated in the article are those of the authors. (;]

When Security Council resolution 2417 was adopted in May 2018, WFP and other food security actors were taken by surprise. Never before had the link between hunger and conflict been given such clear recognition and the causation condemned with such force. While this acknowledgement seemed obvious and long overdue to many that have been engaged in food security responses around the world, the implications of the Security Council decision brought this to a new level of importance on the global peace and stability agenda. But what caught the food security world flat footed was the call for information and evidence to empower the Council to act and hold accountable those responsible for creating famine and starvation.

For decades, WFP and other organizations responding to food security crises around the global have been issuing reports, appeals, alerts and have launched campaigns to bring attention to situations where starvation is being used as a method of war. For example, the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen’s Report of 3 September 2019 is clear in recognizing:

“…the fact that the acts […] all played a role in depriving the population of objects indispensable to its survival, and have been continued, justifies deep concerns that starvation may have been used as a method of warfare by all parties to the conflict. Such deprivation also amounts to prohibited inhuman treatment. Considered serious violations of international humanitarian law, these acts may lead to criminal responsibility for war crimes.” (para 56)

In their policy report on “Sieges as a weapon of war: Encircle, starve, surrender, evacuate”, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic found that:

Syrian civilians in besieged areas countrywide have been encircled, trapped, and prevented from leaving; indiscriminately bombed and killed; starved, and routinely denied medical evacuations, the delivery of vital  foodstuffs,   health   items,   and   other essential supplies – all in an effort to compel the surrender of those “governing” or in control of the areas in which they live” (para 1).

And in October 2020, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported:

Pervasive human rights violations, as well as deliberate strategies on the part of both Government and opposition forces to use starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, amounting to acts constituting war crimes, have contributed to the food insecurity in Western Bahr el Ghazal, Jonglei, and Central Equatoria States.” (para 6)

These reports and advocacy efforts have not been enough to trigger any level of accountability for the use of such tactics or the deaths that have been the result. Similarly, they have not been enough to trigger investments and action to halt the immediate decline in food security or prevent the reoccurrence beyond a brief cessation of hostilities. Instead, they are used primarily as fund-raising instruments that provide an important, albeit temporal, alleviation of suffering. One could argue that they have become too routine and policy makers have become desensitized to the real plight of people caught up in conflict and hunger, far away from Europe and North America (notwithstanding the consequential impact on displacement and forced migration which has directly impacted Europe in particular). Furthermore, root causes and drivers of famine have not been fully considered alongside this, to present a more complete picture.

Since the adoption of the resolution, there is wide recognition of the need to develop more effective means to gather and bring information and evidence on alleged starvation crimes to the attention of the Security Council. Resolution 2417 specifically “Requests … information on the humanitarian situation and response, including on the risk of famine and food insecurity in countries with armed conflict [] and further requests the Secretary-General to report swiftly to the Council when the risk of conflict-induced famine and wide-spread food insecurity in armed conflict contexts occurs…” Moreover, the resolution offers avenues of increased accountability, setting out possible reasons for implementing sanctions or prompting investigations.

FAO and WFP have provided informal reports and briefings to the Council on a regular basis since the adoption of the resolution. In 2020, for instance, WFP’s Executive Director addressed the Council twice on the impact of conflict of populations in Yemen and warned of a dramatic deterioration in the situation. The feedback from Council members, however, has been that this is not enough; the information lacks the necessary detail and is too anecdotal to trigger action. And some members question the relevance of the issue to the Councils mandate on peace and security.

New momentum in 2021

In an effort to respond to this critical feedback, the most recent informal report by FAO and WFP to the Council (Monitoring Food Security in conflict situation, A Joint WFP/FAO update to members of the Security Council, April 2021, 8th Edition) provided more specific information on three situations where conflict has resulted in situations of famine: Burkina Faso, Nigeria and South Sudan. Drawing on publicly available sources of information, including reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the submission includes clear indications of starvation being used as a method of warfare. The report provides an analysis of the impact of conflict on food systems, citing the range of obstacles from the mining of roads to the systematic targeting of markets and damage to food stocks and food processing sites. It describes the burning of crops and the ensuing abandonment of land that results in the large-scale displacement of populations from their villages and across borders who require emergency assistance to support their basic needs. It touches on the loss of stock, livelihoods and work that render families reliant on external help.

The enhanced focus was welcomed as a step in the right direction in reporting on contexts that fall within the scope of resolution 2417. At the same time, both FAO and WFP recognize that this level of reporting is the furthest that can be reasonably expected from organizations with significant operations on the ground and concerns over the ability to continue to operate in these contexts. The text does not point fingers nor apportion blame, but maintains a principled approach of neutrality and independence, conscious of the risk of undermining efforts to sustain and increase access to populations affected by conflict. It reasonably presents the impact of conflict on populations and food systems, which in itself is a significant step forward to supporting application of the resolution. This reporting, however, purposefully steers clear of entering into the political dynamics that may be the source, driver and/or means to resolve continued conflict. That said, given the role of the Security Council, these dynamics are implied and any actions to address situations of famine necessarily require political will and engagement by all actors involved.

WFP and FAO’s strengthened reporting comes at a moment when the UN Security Council is demonstrating stronger leadership and interest in the resolution. The treatment and prevention of famine is being given greater recognition as numbers rise globally, compounded by the impact of the pandemic, climate change and economic crises. Leadership during the Presidency of the Council is particularly impactful and is gradually and thoughtfully spurring new momentum around addressing hunger and conflict. So, the question remains, what further is needed to trigger real action and the “operationalization” of UNSCR 2417?

Three pronged diplomatic tracks

While information gathering and reporting can be strengthened, a more concerted effort is required to find means to influence the actions of armed actors in relation to access to food and other means of survival, and to empower existing mechanisms. Broadly speaking, there are three areas of work that can contribute to this effort:

Humanitarian diplomacy to secure unfettered access to all populations in need of assistance must be strengthened. The robust reporting by WFP and other food security actors on the varying food security needs of populations can be made more effective by coupling with organizations engaged in conflict and political analysis. While significant strides have been made in developing and utilizing innovative technology and partnerships to assess the food security situation of communities, even those that cannot be physically reached, this would benefit from a stronger understanding of the wider dynamics that are at play. These are often the root causes and drivers of famine. The knowledge resides with organizations that monitor and study conflicts, their history and evolution, which can be utilized when strategizing and engaging in humanitarian diplomacy to facilitate access to affected populations. This should be pursued alongside knowledge from civil society and local level NGOs to develop a more complete situational analysis that can support action. This action must therefore consider both the cause as well as the result of conflict, to be effective. Taken as a whole, the set of information that feeds into humanitarian diplomacy can serve to bring greater clarity on the action of armed actors in restricting access to food and creating famine crises.

Human rights diplomacy is a second means of engagement that can complement information being utilized by the humanitarian track, contributing to facilitating greater accountability. The UN Human Rights Council and the work of the independent investigations can serve as powerful means to document and report on the use of starvation as a tactic of war. The timeframe for this work, however, must be considered as reports often come far too late to provoke preventive life-saving action. Another capacity that is often underutilized is the work of the UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts, whose efforts can shed light on human right violations that impact on food security. As such the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food could be empowered to support the application of resolution 2417 and fill gaps required to take action. In addition, local documenters and investigators could be supported to facilitate better preventative and early analysis as called for by resolution 2417.

Political diplomacy focused on ensuring respect for international humanitarian law. Building upon the above two tracks, could provide a much more detailed understanding of the drivers of famine. Pursuing this through means of purposeful “quiet diplomacy”, soliciting and surfacing all necessary information in a manner that facilitates dialogue among parties, can serve to engender trust and facilitate effective changes on the ground. This approach can also be considered as a means of pre-emptive action, given that data and information will provide trends analysis (e.g. food prices, cyclical lean seasons or climatic shocks, ethnic divisions, etc.) that can trigger engagement. To be effective, however, a more methodical approach to each context is required whereby humanitarian, human rights and political diplomacy efforts are coordinated and considered concurrently.

Focused capacity to bring these sets of information and engagement together and ensure the requisite analysis is needed to support more robust reporting to the Security Council, is required. Similarly meeting the timely requests for information with careful follow up on commitments, is equally important. This could be led by a Special Envoy of the Secretary-General given the mandate and resources to coordinate and provide the momentum for these efforts. The Special Envoy would serve as an independent dedicated focus for the implementation of the resolution and support the Secretary-General in providing early warning and information on crises where starvation is being used as a method of war. The Special Envoy could also support the three diplomatic tracks, in particular in facilitating the critical ‘quiet diplomacy’ required to urgently open access to those cut off from food assistance in conflict settings as well as the ‘good offices’ of the Secretary-General in facilitating ceasefires and conflict resolution efforts that underpin longer term solutions. Connected to the Office of the Special Envoy an independent body of experts could be established, building on the Famine Review Committee (FRC) of the IPC process, could be established to serve as autonomous body to collect and channel sensitive information, serving to equip the Envoy, Security Council and the Secretary-General, to take action.

[*] Monitoring Food Security in conflict situation, A Joint WFP/FAO update to members of the Security Council, April 2021, 8th Edition

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