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If you don’t feed people, you feed conflict

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World Food Programme (WFP) food distribution in Kaya, Burkina Faso. WFP/Mahamady Ouedraogo

Conflict drives hunger, and when that turns to famine, that then drives conflict, the UN chief told the Security Council on Thursday, adding that “if you don’t feed people, you feed conflict”.

“When a country or region is gripped by conflict and hunger, they become mutually reinforcing…[and] cannot be resolved separately”, Secretary-General António Guterres said via videoconference to the meeting which focused on how conflict and food security are interlinked.

And when hunger meets inequality, climate shocks, sectarian and ethnic tensions, together with grievances over resources, they then “spark and drive conflict”.  

At the same time, conflict forces people to leave their homes, land and jobs; disrupts agriculture and trade; reduces access to vital resources like water and electricity; and also drives hunger.  

‘One step away’ from famine

At the end of 2020, more than 88 million people were suffering from acute hunger due to conflict and instability – a 20 per cent surge in one year – and 2021 projections point to a continuation of this “frightening trend”, according to the top UN official.

He warned the Council of multiple conflict-driven famines globally, with climate shocks and COVID-19 “adding fuel to the flames”.  

“Without immediate action, millions of people will reach the brink of extreme hunger and death”, Mr Guterres said, noting that there are more than 30 million people in over three dozen countries, “just one step away” from famine.

He drew attention to hunger crises across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan while pointing out that reduced humanitarian access threatens food insecurity, including in Tigray, Ethiopia.

‘Act now’

The UN chief spotlighted that hunger and death begin long before the highest levels of food insecurity.

“We must anticipate, and act now”, he said, informing Ambassadors that he was setting up a High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine, led by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock along with the World Food Programme (WFP), “to mobilize support to the most affected countries”. 

Other Inter-Agency Standing Committee members will be involved as needed, including the World Health Organization, UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women.

Most serious concern

Against the backdrop that the more than 34 million people are already facing emergency levels of acute food insecurity, the UN chief recalled WFP’s $5.5 billion appeal “to avert catastrophe”.

“While all countries face some economic strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the solution does not lie in cutting aid to starving children”, he said, adding that “the disappointing outcome” of last week’s pledging event for Yemen “cannot become a pattern”.  

Starvation war tactic 

Exemplifying how starvation has been used as a war tactic, including in Syria, South Sudan and Myanmar, the Secretary-General flagged it as “a war crime”.

He urged the Council to “take maximum action to seek accountability for these atrocious acts”, and to remind conflict parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law.  

Building a foundation

Addressing hunger is a “foundation for stability and peace”, said Mr. Guterres. 

“We need to tackle both hunger and conflict, if we are to solve either”, he said, pointing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and particularly Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 on Zero Hunger, as the blueprint to do so.

Noting that ending hunger requires political solutions to conflict, the UN chief urged all States to make that “a key foreign policy priority”.  

“Do everything in your power to end violence, negotiate peace, and alleviate the hunger and suffering that afflict so many millions of people around the world”, he concluded. “There is no place for famine and starvation in the 21st century”.  

‘Sliding toward the brink’

WFP chief David Beasley warned: “We are…sliding toward the brink of the abyss”.  

‘Shocking’ food insecurity

  • Yemen – 2.3 million children under five are projected to face acute malnutrition this year.
  • South Sudan – 60 per cent of the population are increasingly hungry.  
  • DRC – nearly 21.8 million people faced acute hunger through last year.
  • Afghanistan – nearly 17 million people, up for 13.9 million, are food insecure.
  • Nigeria – 13 million currently, 8 million more than before. 
  • Syria – the figure is now over 12 million people, up from 9.3 million.

“Conflict and instability are powering a destructive new wave of famine that threatens to sweep across the world”, taking an “unimaginable” toll in human misery, he said.

And the cycle of violence, hunger and despair is encompassing increasingly more people with consequences – from economic deterioration to mass migration and starvation – affecting everyone.

Mr. Beasley noted that looming famine emergencies are primarily driven by conflict.

“Make no mistake: man-made conflict is the real culprit”, he upheld, adding that they are “entirely preventable”.

Eating mud  

The WFP chief detailed that people facing dire situations, including in Yemen, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and drew special attention to South Sudan, where he told of “children being fed mud”.

Following up on the Secretary-General’s call for $5.5 billion, Mr. Beasely urged the Council members to open their “hearts, show compassion, and give generously”.           

Looking beyond the immediate crisis, he underscored the need to invest in conflict prevention to ensure that desperate families are not “forced to the brink of survival by the bullet and the bomb”.  

“Please, don’t ask us to choose which starving child lives, and which one dies. Let’s feed them all.”

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Human Rights

UN Women’s feminist roadmap tackles triple crises of jobs, care and climate

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The UN’s gender equality and empowerment organization on Thursday published a flagship feminist plan for economic recovery and transformation, which aims to learn the lessons of the past, and seize the opportunity to handle COVID-related crises better.

UN Women’s Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice, draws on the latest data, analysis, and input from more than 100 global experts to provide concrete pathways for putting gender equality, environmental sustainability, and social justice at the centre of global development efforts.

“We have a generational opportunity to break the vicious cycle of economic insecurity, environmental destruction and exclusionary politics and shape a better, more gender-equal and sustainable world”, said Pramila Patten, UN-Women’s Acting Executive Director.

A gloomy assessment

In the first UN plan of its kind, the report details how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities and laid bare weaknesses in the already fragile global care economy.

“Globally, in 2019 and 2020, women lost 54 million jobs, and even before the pandemic, they took on three times as much unpaid care work as men”, according to UN Women.

Moreover, women are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation while also being left out of decision-making around policy and financing to address climate change. 

And by the end of 2021, men’s jobs will have recovered, but there will still be 13 million fewer women in employment, the gender empowerment agency pointed out.

Trio of crises

The trio of interconnected crises of jobs, care and climate, systematically undermine gender equality and threaten the survival of people and planet, but there is still an opportunity to change course.

“Today’s report provides a roadmap for how to do this, while recovering the ground that’s been lost on gender equality and women’s rights”, said Ms. Patten.

To address these intersecting crises, UN Women is calling for better policy, action and investment, including in the care economy and social infrastructure, such as creating jobs and increasing support for unpaid caregivers.

The report maintains that public investments in care services could create 40 to 60 per cent more jobs than the same investments in construction. 

Fair shot for women

Under the premise that transitioning to environmental sustainability can create up to 24 million new green jobs, the report stresses that women should have their fair share of these opportunities, including by getting the necessary training and skills. 

And women’s leadership must be promoted across institutional spaces, from governments to civil society and the private sector, and especially in crisis response.

Despite having been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, making up 70 per cent of healthcare workers globally, the roadmap notes that women currently hold only 24 percent of seats on COVID-19 taskforces that have coordinated the policy response around the world.

Raise the financial bar

Moreover, despite their critical roles as watchdogs and providing a social safety net in communities, women’s organizations are woefully under-funded.

In 2018-19, women’s rights organizations received only one per cent of all aid allocated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to gender equality, amounting to only a tiny fraction of total aid.

This must change, says UN Women.

To finance these measures, transformative macroeconomic policies – including progressive taxes and, especially for low-income countries, global cooperation and debt relief – are urgently needed, the report says.   

Equally important will be to achieve a shift in power relations to amplify the voices of historically excluded groups and ensure effective gender mainstreaming.  

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Human Rights

Torture, killings, lawlessness, still blight Burundi’s rights record

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A man carries water close to Bujumbura in Burundi. © UNICEF/Karel Prinsloo

The people of Burundi continue to endure serious human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity, the majority committed by those with links to the ruling party, UN-appointed independent investigators said on Thursday.

Despite a pledge by President Evariste Ndayishimiye to address the situation in the country after years of violent repression, crimes including arbitrary detention and execution, torture and intimidation, have not stopped, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

“Not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated”, since President Ndayishimiye’s took office in June last year, Commission chair Doudou Diene told journalists in Geneva.

These abuses happened against a backdrop of “multiple armed attacks” by opponents of the Government since August 2020, Mr. Diene explained.

“While seeking persons allegedly involved in the armed attacks or collaborating with rebel groups, the security forces targeted mainly members from the main opposition party, the National Congress for Liberty (CNL), former members of the Tutsi-dominated Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), returnees and some of their family members. Some were executed, others disappeared or were tortured while detained arbitrarily.”

Dire situation

The Commission noted that although the level of political violence in the Great Lakes nation decreased immediately after the 2020 elections – and with the country appearing to be “on the road to normalization” – the human rights situation remains “dire”.

The national poll was held after the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision to stand for a controversial third term in 2015 sparked major protests and mass displacement, and ultimately the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry by the Human Rights Council, in 2016.

The political climate today is “highly intolerant of dissent”, the Commissioners maintained in their fifth and final report to the Human Rights Council, highlighting how members of opposition parties – notably the CNL – have been targeted, in particular since June 2021.

Imbonerakure impunity

Many security officers and others linked to the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, continued to go unpunished for their crimes, they added, pointing to agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), police officers – including from the Mobile Rapid Intervention Groups (GMIR) – and the Imbonerakure youth-league, whose brutality has been documented in previous Commission of Inquiry reports.

Individuals belonging to these groups are “the main perpetrators of those violations, some of which could amount to crimes against humanity”, the Commission of Inquiry report said. “They continue to enjoy widespread impunity for their actions, as has been the case since 2015.”

Justice reforms lacking

Highlighting the lack of promised structural reforms to promote accountability in the country, Commissioner Françoise Hampson said that the “rule of law in Burundi continues to erode, despite the stated intention of President Ndayishimiye to restore it”.

In common with the Commission’s previous findings, Ms. Hampson noted how testimonies gathered for its latest report pointed to an organized campaign “against those elements of the civilian population that were seen as or thought to be hostile to the government in power” – a potential crime against humanity. “Some of the violations that this year’s report detail, seem to be a continuation of that policy,” she added.

In Burundi, the judicial system could not be relied upon “to curb or remedy human rights violations”, Ms. Hampson continued, warning that the newly elected Government “has only been strengthening its control over the judiciary”.

For the past five years, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has documented, monitored and reported alleged human rights violations in Burundi.

It has conducted more than 1,770 interviews, including remotely, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, as well as Burundi.

The Commission is scheduled to present its report to the Human Rights Council on 23 September, 2021.

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Human Rights

COVID crises highlight strengths of democratic systems

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The UN Secretary-General, on Wednesday, urged the world to “learn from the lessons of the past 18 months, to strengthen democratic resilience in the face of future crises.” 

In his message for the International Day of Democracy, António Guterres explained in the wake of COVID-19, this meant identifying good governance practices that can counter all kinds of emergencies, whether public health, environmental or financial. 

“It means addressing the egregious global injustices laid bare by the crisis, from pervasive gender inequalities and inadequate health systems to unequal access to vaccines, education, the internet and online services,” he said.  

For the UN chief, along with the human toll carried by those most deprived, “these persistent historical inequalities are themselves threats to democracy.” 

Participation of all 

The Secretary-General argues that strengthening democracy also means embracing participation in decision-making, including peaceful protests, and giving a voice to people and communities that have traditionally been excluded. 

“The silencing of women, religious and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, human rights defenders and journalists is an impediment to creating healthy societies,” Mr. Guterres said. 

For him, “democracy simply cannot survive, let alone flourish, in the absence of civic space.” 

Emergency powers 

In his message, António Guterres also stresses the importance of phasing out emergency powers and legal measures by governments, which in some cases have become repressive and contravene human rights law.  

He explains that some States and security sector institutions rely on emergency powers because they offer shortcuts, but cautions that, with time, “such powers can seep into legal frameworks and become permanent, undermining the rule of law and consuming the fundamental freedoms and human rights that serve as a bedrock for democracy.” 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary-General warned that “every crisis poses a threat to democracy, because the rights of the people, in particular those most vulnerable, are all too quickly ignored.” 

It is for that reason that protection of rights in times of crisis is a key element of his Call to Action for Human Rights, issued in February of last year. 

As the world starts to look beyond the pandemic, Mr. Guterres called on the international community to “commit to safeguarding the principles of equality, participation and solidarity”, so that it can better weather the storm of future crises.

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