Briefing on Protecting Civilians affected by Conflict-induced Hunger

Published 21. Apr 2020
Briefing by Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland  to the Security Council on protecting civilians affected by conflict-induced hunger




Statement to the Security Council

Briefing on Protecting Civilians affected by Conflict-induced Hunger

21 April 2020

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Mr. President, UN Security Council members,

I wish to thank you for this opportunity to speak about conflict-induced hunger and what Security Council members can do to follow up on their commitment to “break the vicious cycle between armed conflict and food insecurity” as expressed in resolution 2417 (2018). The importance and urgency of global food needs has been well presented by my colleagues from FAO and WFP. I will therefore concentrate on the need for help from the Security Council with our field-based obstacles to reach the hungry in war.

In my 40 years of humanitarian work there has never been as many, more than 70 million, displaced by horrific violence and conflict. Linked to more, longer and crueler conflicts we see mounting hunger caused by political violence and violent extremism. Conflict forces families to flee their homes, their farms, their fields and their livelihoods, and become dependent on the generosity of host-communities who themselves are often in a precarious situation. To make this storm even worse climate change is also hitting the displaced and their hosts, which in turn deepens hunger and further displacement.

Perhaps nowhere else is this vicious cycle clearer than in central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin in Africa. I witnessed this first-hand when I visited Burkina Faso earlier this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic. Nowhere else in the world have we seen such a tenfold increase in forced displacement in just a year from 70,000 to 750,000.

In the small northern town of Barsalogho, the population had increased manifold due to continuous brutal attacks throughout the region by different armed groups. Most of the families were single mother-led. Men were targeted by extremist violence, and fathers and husbands were dead or had fled further away. These women and children were suffering alone and unprotected. We were only a couple of aid groups present in this large area, and we are overstretched and underfunded. There are no public services nor any law and order in sight.

Most families had gotten some basic shelter. But they were in acute need of everything else: food, water, sanitation and education. A family of 7 or 8 shared 20 litres of water per day. How can you avoid the coronavirus with a thousand huts next to each other, with ten people in each small shelter and 3 litres of water for drinking, food and hygiene per person per day?

There was no school as teachers had fled the targeted violence against education. Food insecurity has increased threefold.

The emergency in Northern Burkina Faso is not unique. We see the same food and basic relief crisis across the Sahel from Mali to Lake Chad. There is an overreliance on counter-terrorist military responses. Too little is done to address such root causes of violence as massive unemployment, lack of education, abject poverty, lack of good governance and lack of hope for the large generation of young people. And if we go beyond the Sahel to Syria, Yemen, DRC or Somalia – we see the same need for a real reboot:

So what should be done?  Having consulted with many field colleagues let me focus on five asks:

  1. We need safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to all populations in need.

As frontline humanitarian agencies, you must help us to reach all communities in need in conflict areas. States have an obligation to facilitate impartial humanitarian aid according to humanitarian law. Yet, when we try to reach children, women and men­­­ - all civilians - with lifesaving relief, we face every day and in multiple conflict settings obstacles, roadblocks and prohibitions. Both assertive governments and non-state armed groups are blatantly denying civilians access to relief.

We would urge the Security Council to avoid politicizing access to aid, and rather by default enable us as frontline humanitarian actors to provide relief wherever and whenever there are unmet needs - across frontlines, across borders, across political, religious and ethnic lines. Women, children, the elderly and the disabled must get aid always and everywhere. UN Security Council resolution 2165 for cross-border relief in Syria is an example of the type of mechanisms needed.

  1. We need stronger humanitarian diplomacy to promote humanitarian access

Missions deployed by the UN Security Council, as well as your bilateral diplomatic missions, must give priority to humanitarian diplomacy with parties and actors that can eliminate access challenges and ensure we can reach people with food and other assistance. Access challenges are nearly always manmade. Your intervention can enable lifesaving food and other aid.

From 2016 to end 2018, I chaired a Humanitarian Task Force on access in Syria with some 25 influential UN member states. The task force was set up after horrific reports of children starving to death in besieged towns in Syria. Within 72 hours of the creation of the task force, convoys were rolling into several besieged areas that had not received any food or other relief for many months. Humanitarian diplomacy by States and the UN system was a key factor in enabling this. States with influence over the parties to conflict have a particular responsibility in this regard. When many besieged areas were again denied food and hunger took hold, it was primarily because the pressure on the parties by States was waning. A criminal military logic won over compassion and humanitarian law.

  1. We must strengthen the instrument of deconfliction with parties to armed conflicts.

Deconflicting by informing parties of protected humanitarian and medical sites, is a key tool to enable food, medical relief and humanitarian assistance to reach civilians without being attacked. The protection of neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian relief is a basic tenant of humanitarian law. To attack medical and humanitarian sites are war crimes.

When military commanders are informed of when, where and what will be supplied of food and other relief items, they have an obligation to ensure the safety and security of a relief convoy for the entire operation. In many conflicts and with many parties this has worked. But too often the parties, their sponsors and the humanitarian system fail to get deconfliction effectively organised and respected. We have often seen convoys get through to places of hunger and hopelessness after having been successfully deconflicted with multiple governmental armed forces and non-state armed groups. In other places we have seen deconflicted convoys, hospitals, schools, camps, and humanitarian offices and warehouses attacked and bombed.

Deconfliction and humanitarian diplomacy can work even in the cruellest of wars, but the information provided must always be verified and accurate, and most importantly there must be accountability for attacks on protected sites. States must work to ensure respect for international humanitarian law among their own armed forces, and among those they support and can influence.

  1. Standard exemptions for humanitarian aid, including food and agricultural products, must be included in counter-terrorism laws and sanctions regimes.

Humanitarian work, access, supply, procurement, visas and movements in conflict zones are increasingly affected by counter-terror legislation, measures and sanctions regimes.

A well known example is the drought-related food crisis that became a famine in south-central Somalia in 2011 and where sanctions imposed on Al-Shabaab greatly complicated the response to the famine. It delayed donor funding and caused widespread risk aversion among humanitarian organizations who believed they could not respond in these areas owing to the legal risks. Exemptions were introduced too late, and too many died.

Today, in many of the conflict areas where NRC’s 15,000 humanitarian workers struggle to get food and other relief to civilians in the crossfire, we are delayed or restrained by the lack of clear cut exemptions for provision of humanitarian aid in all sanctions regimes and counter-terrorism measures.

 In a similar vein, the many current Covid-19 restrictions put in place by States should also always include provisions that allow coronavirus-safe humanitarian assistance to continue, for example by designating humanitarian workers as essential personnel just like medical personnel. Otherwise, the current health crisis may provoke a food crisis with even graver consequences for vulnerable populations.

  1. Monitoring, reporting and accountability mechanisms must be strengthened.

The starvation of civilians in warfare and the denial of humanitarian relief are grave violations of humanitarian law for which perpetrators must be held to account. The recent amendment of the Rome Statute expanding the war crime of deliberate starvation to situations of non-international armed conflicts is a welcome step. States parties should ratify or accept this amendment to ensure it enters into force.

There must be consequences when men with guns and power prevent children and families from accessing food through harvests or aid, and hunger is the consequence. The Security Council must ensure investigations and accountability through a mechanism to monitor and report on humanitarian access and starvation crimes. Only then will generals, commanders and politicians think twice before they deny civilians food.

Starving civilians is a war crime and will never achieve legitimate military objectives. We urge the Security Council to renew its commitment to break the vicious cycle of conflict and food insecurity, and consider the five points I have listed.

Thank you.