Speech by minister Kaag at the Humanitarian Studies Conference

Speech by minister Kaag at the Humanitarian Studies Conference, 27 August 2018.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, after decades of a steady fall in the number of people suffering from malnutrition and food insecurity, we are witnessing dangerous trends. We see warring groups destroying crops and burning down marketplaces. We see military actors blocking humanitarian aid from reaching those who need it most. We see political leaders neglecting their own civilian population because, to them, staying in power is more families to leave everything behind and flee, with nothing to come back important than ensuring innocent civilians have access to food. 

Hunger is on the rise again, and millions of people are at risk.

According to the Global Report on Food Crises, conflict is the main driver of 60 per cent of the world’s acute food insecurity, affecting 74 million people. The second-biggest cause is climate shocks. They are the main driver in 30 per cent of cases.

In 2017, almost 124 million people across 51 countries faced crisis levels of acute food insecurity. This is a dramatic increase since 2015, when the figure was 80 million. This setback is endangering our joint effort to put and end to hunger by 2030.

In many situations, conflict and hunger intersect, each reinforcing the other. In our world of abundance, technology and big data, hunger is completely avoidable.

While most famines have many underlying causes, they all have one common denominator: famine is man-made.

The world’s most recent man-made famine was in South Sudan. There, access to food was used as a weapon of war. Civilians belonging to certain tribes were driven from their homes — and their sources of food — by soldiers and rebels determined to terrify them into never coming back. Gunmen burned markets to the ground, stole food, and killed civilians they found sneaking out of the swamps in search of food.

In Syria, the images of starving children in Eastern Ghouta were only the most recent evidence of the Assad regime’s use of siege-and-starvation tactics.

During my visit to DRC, I saw that years of war and conflict have destroyed entire villages and the means to produce food.

There’s a lack of basic infrastructure. Persistent violence has forced to.

These are not isolated incidents. They are examples of the vicious circle of conflict and hunger.

While the international community has managed to avert all-out famine in the countries I just mentioned, many people remain extremely food insecure. This poses grave risks for regional stability. Rising levels of hunger and conflict could force people to seek assistance and refuge outside their own country, often putting pressure on host countries in the region and beyond.

The fact that this is happening in the 21st century, in an age of progress, technological advances and great wealth, is shameful. If people are the main cause of food insecurity in conflict situations, then surely people can solve the problem. This means that the end of hunger and food insecurity depends on political will.

The political will of governments and warring parties that are obstructing humanitarian access and cutting people off from the basic necessities they need to survive. And the political will of the international community, on whose watch these human rights violations are taking place.

At this point, I’d like to take a moment to talk about Kofi Annan, who died a little over a week ago. The Rwandan genocide happened when he was responsible for UN peace keeping operations (as USG DPKO). He acknowledged that the international community and the UN had been too passive in their response. That acknowledgement led, in 2005, to the Responsibility to Protect, or RtoP, principle.

Some say that RtoP is dead. And in a number of extreme cases, like Syria and Yemen, that’s true.

Nevertheless I don’t believe the principle has failed. Instead, we have failed to live up to it sufficiently. We have to keep working to find effective ways to put the principle into practice. Because RtoP is about much more than military intervention. It is about the responsibilities of a state to protect its own civilian population, about building national resilience to atrocity crimes and prevent looming crises from escalating.

It is important for the international community, including the Netherlands, to actively support national and local initiatives to prevent and stop gross violations of international law. For example, by imposing sanctions, setting up monitoring and investigation commissions, supporting local human rights defenders and practicing preventive and consistent diplomacy.

This year the UN Security Council showed the political will to address this topic, by adopting resolution 2417 on conflict and hunger. An initiative of the government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2018. Resolution 2417 unequivocally condemns those who are responsible for starvation and gives the Security Council the tools to respond effectively to the threat of conflict‑induced famine and food insecurity in situations of armed conflict.

Let me stress from the outset: this resolution does not solve the problem of hunger. But its unanimous adoption by the international community’s most important political body obliges to take action on the ground.

Let me take a brief look at the motives of this resolution 2417 before I focus on the way forward, discussing how we can implement the resolution and break the vicious circle of conflict and hunger.

Modern famines are not simply the result of extreme weather or economic misfortune. They result from human intervention: armed conflict. In other words: an end to famine requires an end to fighting. And ending conflict means coming up with political solutions, which is the Council’s task.

By addressing the issue of conflict and hunger, we opened the door for discussions on topics that do not traditionally take place in the Council, such as the disruption of food systems and markets by armed conflict.

The adoption of resolution 2417 was the first timethe Security Council acknowledged the link between armed conflict, conflict‑induced food insecurity and the threat of famine.

The resolution establishes an early warning mechanism, calling on the UN to alert the Security Council when a famine is looming, so that early action can be taken at the highest political level. It strongly condemnsd the starving of civilians, without making any distinction between international and domestic armed conflict. From now on, countries have to investigate allegations of starvation and the resolution makes it possible to impose sanctions against states and individuals who, for example, arbitrarily block humanitarian aid and thus violate international humanitarian law

Furthermore, the resolution stresses the need for accountability, by recalling the possibility of imposing sanctions on individuals or entities who destroy or obstruct the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in need. It strengthens the norms for safe and unimpeded humanitarian access and the protection of humanitarian workers. The resolution makes it possible to deploy UN peacekeeping operations to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need. Significantly, it places vulnerable people firmly at the heart of the Council agenda.

The adoption of the resolution in May was a great diplomatic achievement and sent a strong political message. But it was only a first step. Without continued political pressure on the individual states and armed groups that use plunder and starvation as weapons, we will not reach the goals we set in the resolution.

Without the continued engagement of civil society and scholars like you, we don’t have the skills, expertise and leverage we need to stop conflict-induced hunger.

Even a unanimous Security Council resolution will not automatically change the behaviour of those blocking humanitarian aid, burning crops and attacking markets.

Making Resolution 2417 operational, so we can prevent and eradicate conflict-induced hunger in practice, requires more than just our work on the Council.

First, we need to keep up the pressure. This means, for example, minimising the risk of political abuse.

Three weeks ago we requested consultations in the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in South Sudan. OCHA had sounded the alarm earlier in July. It warned that in recent months, the ongoing conflict and the blocking of humanitarian assistance have pushed nearly 60 per cent of South Sudan’s population into severe food insecurity. Following up on OCHA’s call, the Council met to act and prevent the situation from getting worse. The Council demanded safe, timely and unhindered humanitarian access. It deployed its full political weight, calling on the parties to immediately implement ceasefire agreements. This was the Council’s first use of the early warning mechanism provided for in Resolution 2417.

Next year, when the Netherlands’ term on the Security Council is over, we will continue to address conflict-induced hunger in other forums, like upcoming sessions of the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

We will also continue to call on the Security Council to take responsibility for combating conflict-induced hunger. We are counting on like-minded incoming Security Council members, like Germany and Belgium, to make good use of the resolution’s hard-won gains.

Second, we need to prevent food insecurity resulting from or contributing to conflict. People in conflict situations are extremely vulnerable to food insecurity.

We will invest in safeguarding agriculture-based livelihoods and in securing the means to produce food during conflict.

We will set up innovative partnerships to achieve sustainable peace. To leave no one behind in our effort to achieve the 2030 Agenda, and notably SDG 2: zero hunger. Especially in countries and territories affected by protracted crises and conflicts, as in the Horn of Africa.

We will also continue to work with the World Bank and other partners to develop a mechanism that responds more systematically to food insecurity and risks of famine. Prevention saves lives and money. WFP [in: Preventing Food Crises, 2018] has found that ending violent conflict – one of the main drivers of hunger – could reduce food aid costs by up to 50 per cent a year. A one-point increase in the World Bank’s Index of Political Stability and Absence of Violence would save nearly 3 billion dollars, based on 2016 data. This would save WFP 300 million dollars a year in Syria and more than 200 million a year in Yemen. Investing in food security will take pressure off the overstretched humanitarian system.

Finally, compliance with international humanitarian law and ensuring accountability for violations are indispensable for finding lasting political stability.

Our current legal frameworks should be broadly adequate for limiting the adverse impact of conflict on civilians, including access to food and livelihoods. 

However, what aggravates situations of food insecurity caused or exacerbated by conflict is often not a lack of rules but the persistent failure to comply with the law, and the lack of accountability for non-compliance.

At a time when certain global powers are openly questioning the legitimacy of the international rule of law, we need to stand firmly behind it, promote international justice, address grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and hold perpetrators to account. Flouting the law of war not only turns these norms into hollow phrases; it erodes the rules-based international order itself. We cannot allow that to happen. 

We must demand respect for the basic norms of international humanitarian law: sparing civilians in conflict to the greatest extent possible, and respecting their dignity. This includes further strengthening the prohibition on forced starvation. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court currently only recognises starvation as a war crime in times of international armed conflict.

In Resolution 2417 we condemn the use of starvation as a method of warfare, in either an international or a domestic conflict. This is a very significant legal development. Now, we must ensure that national legislation provides an adequate framework for enforcing states’ obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to be free from hunger.

Recently, the Dutch Parliament adopted a law that criminalised blocking humanitarian aid with the aim of starving the civilian population in a domestic armed conflict. Will this law directly result in changes on the ground? Probably not, but this is how improved compliance and accountability start. If other states follow suit, perpetrators are more likely to be prosecuted.

Improved compliance and accountability also require fact-finding missions that properly document and report on possible violations; accountability mechanisms that include crimes of starvation in their mandates;training for professionals in the field, so evidence will stand up in court. This is no simple task. But in this way we can strengthen compliance with the norms that protect civilians from starvation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The unanimous adoption of resolution 2417 was a great success. But resolutions – any resolutions – are only useful if and when they are put into practice. Individual states must implement them. In the end, the child in South Sudan, the mother in Myanmar or the hungry family in northern Nigeria has never heard of resolution 2417. But they will notice if and when the international community takes action based on resolution 2417.

Therefore,

-      I call on our scholars and researchers to provide the evidence and data we need.

Because in this chaotic world full of fake news and fake politics, it’s essential to have reliable, scientific data at our disposal.

-      I call on civil society to remain critical. Starvation is morally repugnant. It cannot and must not become the new normal. You can help by expressing outrage, by publicizing specific cases, and by making sure they stay on the international agenda.

-      An finally, I call on all other states – big and small, powerful and less powerful – to make sure that protecting civilians and preventing hunger becomes the new normal. To create a world without hunger. A world where international humanitarian law is respected. And where the horrendous practice of forced starvation will be a thing of the past.

Thank you.

Ministry responsible