Global Policy Forum

UN Shares Responsibility in Famine

As the UN is turning away refugees in the Horn of Africa, this Inter Press Service  article calls attention to structural deficiencies in the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP is typically tasked with handling such crises, but is currently bankrupt and unable to raise money to help refugees in need. Shamefully, Northern countries are more concerned with granting bailouts to repay Western banks than prioritizing funding to UN aid agencies. An advisory committee to the UN Human Rights Council has requested that the Council not just condemn member states for failing to fund aid organizations, but “take responsibility on behalf of the world forum for the crisis.”

By Gustavo Capdevila

August 10, 2011

The United Nations Human Rights Council should accept responsibility, on behalf of the world forum, for the famine spreading through eastern Africa, and should call for member countries' cooperation to overcome the desperate food crisis there, experts said.

One of the 18 independent experts on the advisory committee to the Council, Chilean academic José Antonio Bengoa, set forth the idea of asking for an urgent special session, in an attempt to draw the attention of the international community to the gravity of the crisis in the Horn of Africa.

At its seventh session, which opened in Geneva Monday Aug. 8 and ends Friday Aug. 12, the advisory committee decided to send a letter to the Human Rights Council requesting that it consider holding a special session, in accordance with Bengoa's proposal.

Bengoa described to IPS the famine conditions in five countries in the region: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, which require immediate action by the Council, the United Nations' top human rights body.

However, the World Food Programme (WFP) "is utterly bankrupt at the moment," Bengoa said.

Left in the lurch by defaulting donors, the WFP is in "a scandalous situation, and it barely has enough food for the next few days," he said.

Jean Ziegler of Switzerland, another expert on the advisory committee, and a former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food (2000-2008), said Bengoa's idea for the Council to issue a declaration about the famine "is a useful proposal, because the U.N. and non-governmental organisations are helpless in the face of this appalling catastrophe."

Over the past two years the WFP's budgeted income has been pruned by half, Ziegler told IPS. In 2008 it received six billion dollars, but this year it has only 2.8 billion dollars in hand, he said.

Major Western donor countries have bailed out their banks to the tune of billions of dollars, while drastically cutting down on development aid, and especially emergency assistance, he said.

In consequence, Ziegler said, the WFP is having to refuse help to refugees arriving at the camps. The WFP simply lacks the money to help the number of people in need.

Tens of thousands of people have likely died since April, the expert said. According to the WFP, 11 million people are in urgent need of food.

In the circumstances, a declaration from the U.N. Human Rights Council might stir some consciences and prompt people to act. It would at least force countries - officially committed to protecting the human right to food - to pay their contributions to the WFP, Ziegler hoped.

Bengoa, who describes himself as "pragmatic", acknowledged that the situation is complex, because at the moment the rest of the world is concerned about the economic crisis in the United States and other rich countries of the North.

"Obviously, the purse strings are tightly tied and will not be loosened soon. Feeding starving children in the emergency camps in Africa is not going to improve the crises in the U.S. or Europe," he said.

Nevertheless, "it is very important for the advisory committee to make a statement, and for the Council to see, what is really happening in the camps filled with starving refugees, where people are under the U.N.'s responsibility. These people are barely getting the minimum daily calorie intake. They are on starvation rations," said Bengoa.

To sum up, "this is a case of United Nations responsibility," and the U.N. must issue an urgent call to its member countries, he stressed.

Another aspect of the crisis highlighted by Bengoa is the link with broader development issues, like the consequences of the absence of development programmes in east Africa and the lack of international aid and cooperation. "All these issues are exhaustively discussed in theory here at the international forums, but in reality, they are not put into practice," he said.

The only realistic plan in this context, which would be a real success if achieved, "is an urgent meeting of the Human Rights Council where rich countries make a commitment, at least by expressing willingness to donate, or participate with the intent to contribute, and some may even name a figure for that contribution," the expert said.

"One can allege that such commitments will not be fulfilled either, but at least they will be recorded on paper. France's silos are full; it's not as if Europe had no food to send to Africa," Bengoa said.

The March 2006 U.N. General Assembly resolution that created the Human Rights Council, which replaced the former Commission on Human Rights, stipulates that if 17 states request a special meeting of the Council on a current, serious and immediate problem involving human rights violations, the Council must convene the extraordinary meeting.

Right now, "the right to food of 12 million people in five countries is being breached," Ziegler said, so Bengoa's proposal "is absolutely in accordance with the Council's mandate," he said.

Ziegler pointed out that none of the five affected countries have a stock of food reserves, because the drought has dragged on for five years, with harvests diminishing gradually to vanishing point. This shows that the present situation could have been foreseen, he said.

"They have no food reserves because food commodity prices have soared due to speculation, because hedge fund capital has flown from financial markets that were making big losses, into agricultural commodity exchanges," he said.

When countries cannot afford to stockpile emergency food reserves because of high prices, people's right to food is negated, the expert said. "So, speculation with the prices of basic foods - rice, maize and wheat, which provide 75 percent of normal consumption - should be banned," he said.

Ziegler put forward his interpretation of some recent episodes on the international financial market related to the present crisis in the Horn of Africa.

Greece was recently granted a 157 billion dollar financial bailout, he noted – money that was sent to Greece so it could pay Western banks what they were owed. Meanwhile, at a conference in Nairobi, the WFP asked for 4.2 billion dollars for the period Jul. 15 to Aug. 15, and only secured one-third of this amount.

Germany, Italy, Spain and other European countries can forward billions of euros to their banks, Ziegler continued, yet the same countries have slashed their WFP contributions since October 2008.

To restore the right to food, stock market speculation on staple foods must be banned, states must be obliged to honour their statutory obligations under the convention establishing the WFP, and the debt of countries most affected by the present famine must be drastically reduced, Ziegler said.

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