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The day the UN barred using hunger and starvation as weapons of war

Four years after the Security Council passed the landmark resolution 2417, World Food Programme Head of Emergencies Margot van der Velden explains why in a year of unprecedented hunger marking the anniversary is so important
, Barbara Celis
A child at a WFP distribution point in Ituri, DRC_Charlie Musoka
A child at a WFP distribution point serving displaced people in Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: WFP/Charlie Musoka

As the Head of the Emergencies Department at the World Food Programme (WFP), Margot van der Velden knows quite a lot about how to operate in war environments. From the Sahel, to South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and all the way to Afghanistan, van der Velden is the creative and strategical mind behind the key operational decisions that allows WFP to bring food to civilians in war contexts.

“Thats the biggest challenge in every conflict,” she says sitting in her office in Rome and surrounded by paperwork. “And that’s why the approval four years ago of (resolution) 2417 was such a breakthrough moment because for the first time, the higher UN authority acknowledged the link between hunger and conflict, giving the humanitarian world a wider framework under which to operate when starvation is used as a weapon of war.” 

That, of course, is again the challenge in Ukraine, an emergency that just a few months back wasn’t part of van der Velden’s packed agenda.

Conflict and insecurity are the main drivers of hunger, and in Ukraine, their combination is causing the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world. “It is a very complex situation with too many ramifications,” explains this humanitarian who has worked in conflicts for the past two decades. And the problem is by no means limited to having people trapped in the east of the country without access to food.

”The Ukraine conflict has caused upheaval in global food and energy markets, with soaring food and fuel prices putting millions at risk of hunger across the world,” says van der Velden. If it continues unabated, up to 323 million people could face acute hunger in 2022, she warns. 

Such figures are staggering even for an organization that has been working on the frontlines of conflicts and natural disasters for more than 50 years, saving lives in emergencies but also bringing hope to millions caught in those conflicts through resilience projects. 

In 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas, and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war“, she says.

Yet, no effort seems enough in a context that she says has completely different rules from those in place decades back. “The world is no longer a place where almost every country signed up the Geneva Conventions and players were ‘playing by the rules’,” she says. “Now we have lots of actors that don’t abide by international humanitarian conventions,” she says.

Food distribution in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is among east African countries where drought, conflict and other drivers of hunger are putting millions of lives at risk. Photo: WFP/Adrienne Bolen

That’s what the world is witnessing in Ukraine, or so it was said last week at the UN Security Council during two sessions devoted to global food security and where once again the words “food as weapon of war” were continuously repeated. “[Resolution] 2417 might not be a silver bullet that changes the whole scenario but now you have evidence being brought to the Security Council,” she says. “And evidence is essential to find ways of mitigating and pushing for solutions when most of parties agree that red lines have been crossed.”

WFP started pushing for the passing of the resolution in 2016, she recalls. “We, together with the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, and Action Against Hunger, were working towards a Security Council product to ensure greater consideration of the link between hunger and insecurity,” she says.

“The evidence that WFP put on the table was pivotal to building momentum. It took two years and a lot of efforts from other humanitarian partners and peace advocacy actors as well, such as Stockholm International Peace Research Institute."

“Since its approval, we have been called regularly to support that evidence, first in cases such as Yemen and Sudan but our role has increasingly been seen as key because evidence can help drive policy engagement and humanitarian diplomacy.”

A WFP-backed pop-up retail outlet in the Gorom refugee camp in South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Eulalia Berlanga
A WFP-backed pop-up retail outlet in the Gorom refugee camp in South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Eulalia Berlanga

In January, before the war in Ukraine had started, the latest Hunger Hotspots report produced by WFP and its sister agency the Food and Agriculture Organization, painted a grim outlook for Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen, where humanitarian assistance is critical to prevent starvation.

All of these countries are part of a 'ring of fire' WFP is warning is sweeping across the globe, with conflict and climate change intersecting to devastating effect with the coronavirus pandemic, sending prices skyrocketing and making the most basic foods inaccessible. Mitigation in such contexts is critical. 

“WFP also advocates for the increase of investment in early warning tools which are crucial to identify emerging risks and translate them into concrete anticipatory actions to mitigate the impact of a crisis,” says van der Velden.

Margot van der Velden, WFP Head of Emergencies, during a recent mission in Afghanistan, a country that is deeply impacted by the collateral damages of the war in Ukraine. Photo: WFP/Shelley Takral
Margot van der Velden, WFP Head of Emergencies (centre), during a recent mission to Afghanistan, a country deeply impacted by the collateral damages of the war in Ukraine. Almost half the population (19.7 million people) face acute food insecurity (IPC phases 3-5) and require emergency food assistance, Photo: WFP/Shelley Takral

But, what is the way forward to move from discussion to action and see a real impact on people’s lives? “We are already seeing an impact in many different conflict areas, but we all know is not enough,” says van der Velden.

“In Ukraine, we have reached so far 3.9 million people but there are still many people trapped in the east that we haven´t been able to reach and that’s why the humanitarian community together with diplomacy efforts cannot give up."

“We must continue to invest in and better document the link between hunger and conflict, and WFP is playing a more prominent role every year in that aspect, with better tools and more data while we keep advocating to unfettered access to all populations in need."

Woman with a WFP box in Syria
Ikhlas and her family are supported by WFP in Salymieh in Hama governorate, Syria. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

“Regardless of the political and security situation, the humanitarian principles and the international humanitarian law must always be respected in order to guarantee the humanitarian space and access to those who are in need. (Resolution) 2417 gives us a better framework to work on this and that’s why it is an essential tool.”

Since its approval in 2018, new commissions have been created to investigate the use of starvation in specific cases. Also, there is growing engagement by the Human Rights Council and Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in conflict and hunger issues, and the International Criminal Court’s statute was amended to extend the Court's jurisdiction to the use of starvation in non-international conflicts.

Van der Velden acknowledges that vetoes can always scupper the intentions behind 2417. Still, “every tool in our hands adds to our efforts to find solutions to ultimately save those caught in conflict. The needs are there, and we cannot give up,” she says. “We must continue to advocate for the humanitarian principles, we owe it to humanity.”

Special thanks to WFP Senior Strategic Partnership Officer Shannon Howard for providing historical perspective in support of this article.


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