20 May Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: Famine in a NIAC’s Shadow–Other Situations of Violence and a Challenge for UNSCR 2417
[Chris Newton previously worked in South Sudan with several humanitarian organizations, including most recently the United Nations World Food Programme, and is currently a master’s student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.]
Humanitarian famine early warning and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2417 on armed conflict and hunger share a gap – famine caused by armed conflict in all but name. When a situation of violence does not readily appear to meet a recognized definition of armed conflict, its ability to generate famine may be severely underestimated, if not discounted entirely. Other situations of violence can and do cause famine, especially when they exhibit many of the qualitative aspects of organization and intensity used to determine if a Non-international Armed Conflict (NIAC) is occurring. In overlooking this reality, efforts in monitoring and early warning by humanitarians, the United Nations Security Council, and others have fallen short and will continue to do so.
The world has seen only three famines declared in near real-time in the last 20 years. The first two, Somalia in 2011 and South Sudan in 2017, were largely or wholly caused by recognized NIACs. The most recent was a qualified declaration of famine for a small area of Jonglei State, in South Sudan in December 2020. It was largely the result of a situation of violence not formally recognized as an armed conflict and fought primarily by non-state armed groups. While flooding and other shocks contributed to the likely onset of famine, the principal cause was organized violence. The main actors in South Sudan’s recognized NIAC, including the state security services and the largest armed opposition group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (IO), played at most supporting or enabling roles, rather than acting as the main belligerents, in this period of organized violence. As a result, humanitarian and other actors struggled to describe, explain, and anticipate the consequences of what they observed.
Rather than a semantic complaint, this issue is a major reason why the international community was surprised by a man-made famine in South Sudan almost four years after the infliction of famine within a NIAC in the same country. There was either a failure to recognize an ongoing NIAC or to understand the likely impact of a situation of violence showing key attributes of a NIAC, despite real-time monitoring by humanitarians, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and other international actors.
For around eight months, across an area larger than Ireland, multiple armed groups engaged in widespread, sustained, and intense organized violence that at peak may have involved more than 15,000 combatants and multiple types of heavy weapons. As detailed by a joint investigation of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), a peacekeeping operation, armed groups operated with clear elements of organization. They regularly showed considerable tactical capacity, including one operation that involved a coordinated, single-day assault by an estimated 7,000 combatants on dozens of villages spread over 70 kilometers.
Territory was taken by force and held for weeks at a time, including through the establishment of temporary staging areas from which to launch repeated attacks, before voluntary withdrawals. Though battle deaths likely reached into the hundreds, civilian populations were principal targets, especially their agro-pastoralist livelihoods. Combatants were largely drawn from areas with recent experience of famine conditions at the start of 2020, while the most severely affected area ended the year most likely in famine primarily as a result organized violence.
Yet because this situation of violence was routinely labeled local, intercommunal, and tribal, a rapidly growing risk of famine was not identified and publicly reported through any existing mechanism. Perhaps the best example of the gulf between naming and reality was when division-strength combat operations targeting settlements and sites of military significance were frequently described as cattle raiding, even in the absence of mass cattle seizure. These familiar labels for organized violence in rural South Sudan – inadequate and misleading at their best – failed to describe the dynamics and impact of organized violence. When describing organized violence, local, intercommunal, and tribal are often interpreted as meaning inherently smaller scale, lower intensity, and lesser impact on food systems in comparison to armed conflict. The act of labeling becomes a substitute for analysis, with the name of a situation taking the place of the reality of it.
The international community already faces a similar challenge with preventing and responding to famine, as the process of declaring a famine within an armed conflict is fraught at best. Waiting to act until a famine declaration is made is ineffective, as most deaths related to famine often occur in the build-up to and aftermath of a declared famine event. A situation with many of the traits of famine may be just as deadly if not deadlier than a situation where analysis definitively concludes that famine is ongoing. The most intense famines are also likely to be those about which little is known until they begin to subside. So too may a situation of violence create humanitarian consequences on par with, or in excess of, those generated by armed conflict, including famine. The debate – or lack thereof – over whether armed conflict is occurring should not prevent analysis of the humanitarian consequences of large-scale, intense, and sustained organized violence, including the risk of famine.
Whether the events of January to August, 2020 in Jonglei State constituted an armed conflict was and is not the most important question for institutions concerned with famine, be they humanitarian or the UNSC. The situation needed to be analyzed in terms of the risk of famine for populations affected by organized violence, given its duration, scale, and intensity, regardless of the label for the overall situation. Instead, a dominant narrative of local, intercommunal, and tribal violence, cattle raiding, and normalized crisis obscured the increasing likelihood of famine.
There was no public early warning of the growing risk of famine from the humanitarian community based in South Sudan. No analysis was published by a joint government-humanitarian team between January and December 2020, when an external body issued the declaration. The only other early warning entity, the independent Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), concluded in June 2020 that the risk of famine was in decline “because of the periodic, localized scale of inter-communal conflict”. The local and the intercommunal was differentiated from political conflict, in which the “tactics used…led to rapid deterioration in food security outcomes in cases where household movement and humanitarian access were significantly restricted”. This was determined as the second offensive by a coalition of non-state armed groups was under way in lowland Pibor County, again exhibiting strong elements of organization and intensity. This is the same area that would be declared as most likely experiencing famine by the end of the year.
For the global humanitarian system, the lack of early warning on Jonglei State stands in contrast to the only other declared famines since the 2004 rollout of a standardized approach for doing so, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The early warning in the build-up to the 2011 famine in Somalia was exemplary, while the risk of famine in central and southern Unity State in South Sudan was well understood by the time of the 2017 famine declaration for that area. It does not seem coincidental that the early warning was stronger for famines created by two unambiguous NIACs and nonexistent for a famine caused by a situation of violence considered local, intercommunal, and tribal.
The 2020 famine declaration for South Sudan was the first since the passing of 2417. The resolution reaffirmed the two-way links between armed conflict and hunger, especially famine, as well as international commitment to responding to and preventing conflict-induced food insecurity and famine. It also requested the Secretary-General to report on the risk of famine in armed conflicts in routine and ad-hoc updates. Yet the resolution is explicitly concerned with armed conflicts and not necessarily cases where a situation of violence exhibits strong elements of organization and intensity short of armed conflict. This focus is emphasized so strongly that the phrase “armed conflict” comprises about 1 of every 25 words in the resolution. In the case of South Sudan’s likely famine in 2020, no 2417 reporting appears to have occurred.
The only explicit and public advance notice to the UNSC seems to have been a September 2020 briefing by Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. He stated “The risk of famine is emerging again in areas suffering localized violence”. Unfortunately, this briefing occurred well after the eight months of widespread and intense organized violence across Jonglei State and only two months before an international body of experts would declare that famine was most likely occurring after the in-country IPC analysis broke down due to the politics of the declaration.
The closest a warning to the UNSC may have come to stating that something approaching armed conflict was raising the risk of famine in Jonglei State was a June 2020 briefing by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in South Sudan and the head of UNMISS, David Shearer. He noted that organized violence across multiple states “can no longer be pigeonholed as ‘intercommunal’.” He explicitly stated that it was not only a local issue, explaining that “the violence has been allowed to play out and is being used to sort out power arrangements at the national and subnational levels.” While Shearer even mentioned Jonglei State as particularly affected, referencing the spatial overlap of the Hunger Triangle of 1993 – an area of mass starvation caused by sustained and intense fighting by non-state armed groups – and the contemporary situation, he did not give any specific warning of famine for the area.
The lack of early warning suggests that the fixity of several common narratives of organized violence is a barrier to recognizing famine risk. This is neither a new problem nor one that has gone unchallenged. Severine Autésserre has extensively documented the unintended consequences of dominant narratives on the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and their role in international interventions in the region, including how the framing of local violence led to repeated peacebuilding failure. Other scholars like Brendan Bromwich have sought to demonstrate how narratives of natural resource scarcity fail to explain organized violence in Darfur, proposing instead an analysis of the various layers of conflict.
Jana Krause examined an earlier situation of violence in Jonglei State, proposing communal war as a category of conflict to describe it. Even the humanitarian cluster system in South Sudan attempted to challenge dominant narratives about organized violence in 2020 as events unfolded through the use of new terminology and greater disaggregation of layers of organized violence. Despite this, efforts in famine prevention and response fell into a common narrative trap that deflected attention, undermined understanding, and helped deny accountability.
An overriding if unspoken global narrative about famine is that local, intercommunal, and tribal violence may create food insecurity, but does not cause famine. In South Sudan, this narrative about local violence and low famine risk intertwined with an even more common narrative that a national peace process is a reliable barometer of peace at all levels. An incrementally advancing peace process and a conflict-driven famine would appear to be incongruous in any context. Yet this was a fundamental misreading of South Sudan and its dynamics of conflict.
The national government and the IO signed a second peace agreement in late 2018, even before the final offensives of the war were over. Implementation was slow as the real winners and losers of the deal, and the extent of their wins and losses, were gradually and at times ephemerally determined. A mixture of the use and threat of organized violence, transactional political bargaining, and deliberately leaving numerous issues unsettled eventually created the conditions for the formation of the executive branch of a Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity on 22 February 2020, roughly four days after the first major offensive began in Jonglei State.
This apparent progress had come with the dissolution of most administrative boundaries and subnational government, the extraconstitutional creation of state-like entities called administrative areas, and a stalled process of armed forces integration and security sector reform. The links between national, state, and local politics ensured that what was done within the national peace process would reverberate at all levels of South Sudanese politics. In Jonglei State, the conditions were coming together for a major period of organized violence because of, not despite, some advancements in the national peace process. In this way, the likely occurrence of famine by the end of the year, primarily due to organized violence, was growing even as dominant narratives of low-impact local violence and progress on peace concluded the opposite.
If the situation of violence in Jonglei State in 2020 was an armed conflict, as it arguably may have been, it must be asked why it was not recognized as such and its impact monitored accordingly. However, if the situation of violence was not an armed conflict, there remains a deeper challenge for those interested in the mitigation and prevention of famine caused by organized violence. It seems likely that 2417 was intentionally written with an exclusive focus on recognized armed conflicts and not other situations of violence, no matter the degree of organization or intensity. If so, this was an error. Other situations of violence are demonstrably capable of causing famine, though international efforts in accountability and early warning struggle to see this risk.