17 September 2020

Conflict Zone Populations Face Gravest Threat of Hunger amid COVID-19, Aid Experts Tell Security Council, Warning Food Insecurity Worldwide Expected to Double by Year’s End

World Food Programme, Partners Planning ‘Biggest Scale Up in Our History’ with Assistance Reaching 138 Million People in 2020, Executive Director Says

With the number of people suffering from food insecurity projected to double in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those in conflict zones still face the most severe threats of hunger and even famine, experts told the Security Council during a 17 September videoconference meeting on conflict-induced hunger, as they issued a clarion call for donors to step up their support.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said his briefing to the 15-member organ comes in response to its request — contained in resolution 2417 (2018) — to be swiftly informed of the risk of conflict-induced and widespread food insecurity.  While famines have existed throughout human history, the world has become much better at preventing them in recent decades due to a combination of expanded agricultural output, a drop in the number of people living in extreme poverty and stronger international cooperation.  Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — which now threatens to reverse those gains — famine had been limited largely to conflict zones.  

Recalling the Council’s explicit recognition of the links between armed conflict, food insecurity and the threat of famine, he said conflict disrupts all aspects of life.  Civilians are injured or killed, driven from their homes, and lose their land and livelihoods.  Farms, food supplies, livestock, infrastructure and public services are damaged or destroyed.  Over time, such challenges drive up food prices, tear apart the social fabric, undermine institutions and erode economic growth and development.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of people suffering from food insecurity is projected to more than double by the end of 2020, to 270 million people, with COVID-19 making hunger much worse.  

Spotlighting the situation in some of the most severely impacted countries, he said nearly 22 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are now acutely food insecure, the highest number in the world, as a result of COVID-19 compounding the impact of decades of conflict.  Violence by extremist non-State groups in north-east Nigeria are driving up humanitarian need.  In the Sahel region, an upsurge in violence and armed group attacks have displaced huge numbers of people, with some 3.3 million people severely food insecure in Burkina Faso alone. 

“I don’t think we have seen the peak of the pandemic yet, but the indirect impact is already deepening poverty, destroying livelihoods, undermining education, disrupting immunization, and exacerbating food insecurity, fragility and violence,” he said.  While humanitarian actors remain committed to continuing their work, they face repeated attacks and restrictions on their movement and access.  Too many parties to conflict do not abide by the crucial principles of international humanitarian law, and the humanitarian community risks being overwhelmed by rising need.

Listing several concrete measures the Council can take to assist them, he underlined the need to press for peaceful and negotiated political solutions to bring armed conflicts to an end; ensure that parties to conflict respect international law; mitigate the economic impact of armed conflict, including by mobilizing international financial institutions; scale up support for humanitarian operations; and take more ambitious steps to support the economies of countries facing large-scale hunger.  “History proves that, even in the midst of conflict, famine can be prevented,” he said, calling for prompt action.  “Unfortunately, in too many places, time is now running out.”

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), recalled that five months ago he warned the Council that the world stood at the brink of a hunger pandemic, with conflict, climate change and COVID-19 threatening to push 270 million people to the brink of starvation.  The world listened, leaders responded and countries large and small took extraordinary measures to save the lives of their citizens and to support their economies.  Suspending debt payments alone made a big difference.  The World Food Programme and its partners expect to reach 138 million people in 2020 — “the biggest scale-up in our history” — through, among other things, new food and cash programmes to support the hungry in urban areas, support to more than 50 countries to scale up their social safety nets and the provision of food to millions of children who are not in school due to COVID-19 lockdowns.  However, “we’re not out of the woods”. 

Indeed, he said, people on the brink of starvation need more help than ever. Without the necessary resources a wave of hunger and famine still threatens to sweep across the globe — especially in countries scarred by violence.  “We have to step up and not step back,” he said, adding that 2021 will be a make-or-break year.  The World Food Programme’s budget for 2020 was set before the pandemic, but it is unclear what will happen in 2021.  While Governments are spending billions on domestic stimulus efforts, they must not turn their backs on the world’s hungriest people.  Sensible measures to contain the coronavirus must be balanced with the need to keep borders open and trade moving while avoiding unintended consequences that will hit the poor hardest.

Summarizing the situation in countries and areas most at risk, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, north-east Nigeria, South Sudan and Burkina Faso, he said that in Latin America, hungry families have been hanging white flags — the universal sign of surrender — outside their houses to show they need help.  “We cannot and must not surrender, or tell ourselves there is nothing we can do,” he stressed, urging the private sector must step up and play its part.  Some $4.9 billion is needed to feed 30 million people for a year, yet there are 2,000 billionaires in the world with a combined net worth of $8 trillion — some of whom reportedly made billions during the pandemic.  With humanity facing its greatest crisis in a lifetime, “it’s time to do the right thing”.

Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), recalled his last briefing in April during which many Council members underlined the importance of early warning and early action to avert food insecurity crises.  Since then, the situation for several countries has not improved and the risk of famine is looming.  In Yemen, the continued presence of desert locusts has further threatened food availability; in Burkina Faso, the number of people experiencing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity has almost tripled; the number of people in crisis and emergency levels of acute food insecurity in northern Nigeria increased by 73 per cent over peak 2019 figures in recent months; and the 21.8 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are now experiencing crisis or worse food insecurity levels — the highest number ever recorded in any single country.  

Noting that COVID-19 is exacerbating such conditions in many cases, he went on to note that the number of people facing crisis or worse levels in Somalia increased by 67 per cent over 2019 as a result of the “triple shock” facing many countries — namely, COVID-19, floods and the desert locust upsurge.  Nearly 10 million people in Sudan now require urgent humanitarian assistance as they face serious flooding.

In all those countries, he said, those who are hit hardest include the urban poor, informal workers and pastoral communities as well as people who are already particularly vulnerable — children, women, older persons, the sick and people with disabilities — calling for more political will and stronger support for local food production.  Such development work is closely linked to peace and security, as well as mutually reinforcing.  “Lasting peace and harmony can be achieved through good policies and investment in agriculture infrastructure and capacity-building in the rural development, especially in conflict areas,” he concluded.

As Council members delivered remarks, many echoed the briefers’ calls for scaled-up humanitarian support to countries facing both conflict and COVID-19.  Some focused on the need for sustainable development — including improved capacity in the agricultural sector — as a solution that goes beyond acute emergencies to address the root drivers of hunger and conflict.  Others drew attention to warring parties’ violations of international humanitarian law — such as blocking the delivery of food aid or preventing farming during a conflict — and emphasized that hunger must never serve as a weapon of war.

The representative of Estonia pointed out that, while conflicts are often the reason why people require humanitarian assistance, they simultaneously make the work of humanitarian actors extremely difficult.  Those challenges are now further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Pointing out that the common denominator shared by all the countries mentioned by the briefers is conflict — and that people in each of them now face the risk of famine — he said that, against such a backdrop, a holistic response is needed and members of the international community must step up.

The representative of the Dominican Republic was among the speakers who emphasized that innocent civilians are paying the price for the Council’s failure to protect them from conflict, alongside economic hardship and sudden external shocks.  Hunger seems to be a recurrent persistent threat for conflict-affected countries and yet the Council once again finds itself trying to solve a problem that could have been avoided in the first place.  “We must do better,” he said, calling on the Council and Member States to support the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, encourage peace processes and hold to account those who prevent humanitarian access.  He called for humanitarian operations to be scaled up and encouraged donor countries to increase their official development assistance (ODA) alongside innovative financial and debt relief programmes.

The representative of Belgium agreed that the Council must act to prevent conflicts from causing or aggravating hunger.  To ensure respect for international humanitarian law, Member States should be encouraged to guarantee accountability through national investigations.  If national jurisdictions fail to act, the Council can trigger a range of measures, including international investigations.  She added that the Council should also continue to sanction those who obstruct humanitarian access, emphasizing that COVID-19 does not exempt Governments from their international humanitarian and human rights obligations.  They should therefore ensure that COVID-related restrictions do not curtail the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Indonesia’s representative said the protection of civilians — a priority for his country — should always be the Council’s core aim.  Food should never be used as a weapon of war and all parties to conflict must comply with international humanitarian law and the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire and humanitarian access during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Stressing the vital importance of international cooperation, he said that the gap between countries’ responsibility for the protection of the civilians and their capacity to do so must be closed.  The fact that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year puts the issue in the right context, he said.

The representative of France stressed that cooperation between humanitarian and development actors is more essential than ever, requiring not just the provision of aid but also the strengthening of local food production systems and social safety nets.  Prevention and early warning mechanisms must also be enhanced to better anticipate, prevent and mitigate the effects of food crises.  Noting that France’s funding for food aid has grown from €40 million in 2019 to more than €50 million in 2020, she said there must be respect for international humanitarian law and that the use of famine as a method of warfare is a war crime which must not go unpunished.  Preventing famine also means ensuring safe and unhindered humanitarian access, she said, calling for the implementation of resolution 2532 (2020) to be accelerated.

Tunisia’s delegate, emphasizing that freedom from hunger is a fundamental human right, said that human assistance is not a sustainable long-term solution for food insecurity.  Noting the situations in Yemen, Democratic Republic of the Congo and north-east Nigeria, he added that climate-related developments, such as floods and droughts, are major drivers of hunger, especially when combined with armed conflict.  He reiterated Tunisia’s support for calls from the Secretary-General and the Council for a global humanitarian ceasefire and stressed the need for enhanced international cooperation.

The representative of China joined other speakers in echoing the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic — as endorsed by the Council — and emphasized that the organ should always seek to promote the political resolution of conflicts.  The international community should make every effort to guarantee humanitarian access and promote sustainable development — including food production and agricultural development — to address the root causes of crises.  Citing spiking food prices driven by market panic, he said the international community must accelerate its fight against COVID-19, ensure the sustainability of global food supply chains and target developing countries with humanitarian aid.  China provides support to countries in combating the pandemic, as well as in humanitarian and development assistance, and recently instituted a nationwide campaign to combat food waste.

Viet Nam’s representative said that respect for international humanitarian law is a must in all situations of armed conflict.  Parties to conflict must ensure the protection of civilians and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance as well as protect civilian infrastructure essential for agriculture and food supplies.  He called on all parties to adhere to the Council’s demand for an immediate cessation of hostilities in response to the pandemic.  In addition to the coordinated delivery of aid, relevant countries should be supported to build resilience and the ability to adapt to global challenges.  Given the high correlation between food security and international security, it is time to foster greater collaboration between Governments, multilateral institutions and the private sector to ensure safe and nutritious food for all — especially in conflict situations.

The representative of the United States thanked the briefers for their stark warnings, noting that survival in conflict zones has always been harder for people suffering from systemic inequalities — including women, children, people with disabilities and displaced persons — and is becoming even more difficult amid the pandemic.  Briefly addressing the situation in some of the countries discussed today, she said north-east Nigeria is suffering at the hands of armed groups such as Boko Haram, which lack any respect for the rules of international law, often preventing civilians from working on farms or visiting food markets.  She echoed concerns raised about the massive scale of food insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also calling on the Houthis in Yemen to stop interfering in food delivery operations.  Noting that the United States is among the top donors to many countries, she urged others who have not yet disbursed their 2020 pledges to do so and to consider raising their contribution levels.

South Africa’s delegate echoed expressions of concern about the increasing numbers of people facing hunger and malnutrition, noting that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing food insecurity and worsened the situation for countries that were already heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance.  Highlighting the particular plight of migrants, refugees and displaced persons, she called for swift, unimpeded and impartial delivery of aid and underlined the need to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers.  More effective prevention and early warning systems are needed and should integrate indicators on alarming food insecurity levels as well as restrictions on humanitarian actors into reports to the Council.  All conflict parties must comply with international law and anyone obstructing aid delivery or undermining food production during conflict must be held accountable.  She also went on to call for the lifting of all economic sanctions on countries struggling with conflict as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said overcoming food shortages is an insurmountable task for vulnerable groups in conflict-affected countries.  She called for urgent multilateral action and a global ceasefire, urging conflict parties to engage in a durable humanitarian pause.  International law, including international humanitarian law, is non-negotiable, she said, adding that those in a position to influence events should work for full implementation of relevant Council resolutions while also respecting the sovereignty and independence of affected States.  She went on to stress the need for international financial institutions to scale up assistance and to encourage more debt relief. 

The representative of Germany welcomed the broad consensus among Council members that the issue of hunger — which is closely linked to security — falls under their purview.  Noting that early warning mechanisms are crucial to breaking the deadly link between conflict and hunger, he said that in all the conflict zones discussed today civilians are killed, livelihoods are disrupted, and institutional fragility is exacerbated.  All parties to conflict must provide safe, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need, and the mandates provided by the Council must be impartial.  Voicing concern about the spiking numbers of people currently facing hunger and famine, he said persistent funding gaps are also alarming.  “We must all step up,” he stressed, pledging Germany’s continued support and noting that it has increased its international humanitarian budget to $2.5 billion in 2020.

The representative of the Russian Federation raised questions about the value of discussing the so-called “humanitarian development nexus” while calling upon the Council to consider other factors besides conflict — including the volatility of food prices, insufficient investment, environmental degradation and unilateral economic sanctions — as they relate to rising hunger rates.  He also cited limited adherence to international law by warring parties and questions of adherence to the humanitarian standards of neutrality and impartiality.  Outlining the Russian Federation’s emergency food aid support programmes — including to East African nations currently combating locust outbreaks — he stressed that “every conflict has its own nature” and there is no universal recipe to resolving them.  Food insecurity should therefore be considered by the Council only in the context of particular situations that pose threats to international peace and security, with a focus on their root causes, he said.

The United Kingdom’s representative said that the rising risk of famine and acute food insecurity in conflict zones requires immediate action by both Governments and non-State armed groups.  All Member States have a responsibility to fund the United Nations-led response in Yemen, particularly those who have made commitments to do so.  Also noting the need to ensure humanitarian access in north-east Nigeria and South Sudan, he said that, more broadly, the international community must prioritize efforts to break the cycle of armed conflict and humanitarian crisis.  For its part, the Council should use its influence with actors on the ground to insist on unfettered humanitarian access and ensure the protection of civilians.  Going forward, the Council should take up the issue every autumn to hear from today’s briefers and consider further action, he said.

Also speaking in his national capacity was the representative of Niger, Council President for September.

For information media. Not an official record.