The tragic reality of famine around the world has revealed that many States are failing to uphold their legal responsibilities, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, told the UN General Assembly in New York today.
She also called for an urgent shift in thinking away from crisis reactions and toward famine prevention.
“Contrary to popular belief, casualties resulting directly from combat usually make up only a small proportion of deaths in conflict zones, with most individuals in fact perishing from hunger and disease,” Ms. Elver said in her annual report to the General Assembly.
The Special Rapporteur said that this year the world had faced the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. Around 20 million people faced famine and “devastating” starvation in crises in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all of which had arisen from conflict.
Another estimated 70 million people in 45 countries currently require emergency food assistance, an increase of 40 per cent from 2015, she said, also highlighting the serious starvation and severe right to food violations currently affecting the Rohingya people.
Ms. Elver hailed the “essential” work of the international humanitarian system in getting food to conflict victims and lowering death tolls.
But she said States and other parties involved in conflicts needed to recognize their own duty to act, and above all, avoid using hunger as a weapon of war. The right to food is an unconditional human right and legal entitlement for all people, not a discretionary option, she stressed.
“The human right to adequate food is a core right, indispensable for the enjoyment of all other human rights,” Ms Elver stated. “Freedom from hunger is accepted as part of customary international law, rendering it binding on all States.
“It is crucial that the international community understands that it is an international crime to intentionally block access to food, food aid, and to destroy production of food. Such acts as crimes against humanity, or war crimes.”
She added that the most serious cases should be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution.
“If the international community is serious about the imperative character of the right to food and the eradication of food insecurity in times of war and peace, steps must be taken to encourage the implementation of existing standards and to codify international law principles applicable to the right to food,” the expert said.
The Special Rapporteur urged all governments to focus on long-term policies to break the vicious cycle of recurring famines.
“Human rights violations, war crimes, repression and gross forms of inequality are conditions that frequently give rise to famine,” she said. “The attention and commitment of the international community must, as a matter of the highest priority, be directed toward eliminating the root causes of famine, and not limited to ad hoc responses to the agonizing symptoms of the latest food emergency.”