March 2021 Monthly Forecast


Conflict and Hunger

Expected Council Action

In March, the Security Council is expected to hold a high-level open debate via videoconference (VTC) on conflict and food security, which will be the signature event of the US Council presidency. Secretary-General António Guterres may brief.

Background and Key Recent Developments

Recent years have seen the Council increase its consideration of the link between conflict and hunger. In May 2018, it adopted resolution 2417, which “recalls the link between armed conflict and violence and conflict-induced food insecurity and the threat of famine”. Resolution 2417 called on all parties to armed conflict to comply fully with international humanitarian law and strongly condemned unlawful denial of humanitarian access and the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. It urged all conflict parties to protect civilian infrastructure critical for delivering aid and for the proper functioning of food systems.

Resolution 2417 also requested the Secretary-General to report swiftly to the Council when there is a risk of conflict-induced famine and widespread food insecurity in the context of armed conflict, and to update the Council on the resolution’s implementation every 12 months during his annual briefing on the protection of civilians. Since the resolution’s adoption, OCHA has alerted the Council to risks of famine in conflict situations in several white papers: South Sudan in August 2018, Yemen in October 2018, and on conflict-induced food insecurity and the risk of famine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen in September 2020.

Starting in 2019, Council members have also held informal meetings at the deputy ambassador level to discuss the bi-annual report of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), titled Monitoring food security in countries with conflict situations—a joint FAO/WFP update for the members of the United Nations Security Council. The Dominican Republic and Germany initiated the practice, and Ireland and Niger have taken over this role for 2021. On 29 April 2020, the Council adopted a presidential statement encouraging member states “to support relevant early warning systems to provide governments and humanitarian actors with timely, reliable, accurate and verifiable information regarding food security and allowing for anticipation and early action to prevent and mitigate the effects of a food crisis in the context of armed conflict”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated hunger in conflict-affected and fragile countries. In 2019, 135 million people were facing acute food insecurity. Significant drivers of acute food insecurity were: conflict (affecting 77 million people in 22 countries), weather extremes (affecting some 34 million people in 25 countries), and economic shocks (affecting 24 million people in eight countries), according to The Global Report on Food Crises for 2020, which is produced by the international alliance the Global Network against Food Crises. With the onset of the pandemic, the total was projected to double to 270 million. Speaking at a high-level Council VTC on conflict-induced hunger on 21 April 2020, WFP Executive Director David Beasley described the situation as a “hunger pandemic”.

The Council also held a VTC on 17 September 2020, prompted by OCHA’s most recent white paper. During the meeting, Beasley said: “The global hunger crisis caused by conflict, and now compounded by COVID, is moving into a new and dangerous phase—especially in nations already scarred by violence. The threat of famine is looming again; so we have to step up, and not step back … 2021 will be a make-or-break year”.

In December 2020, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), used by the FAO, WFP and other partner organisations to monitor food insecurity, reported that 16.2 million people in Yemen, more than half the population of 30 million, will face Phase 3 “crisis” levels of food insecurity or worse by mid-2021. The analysis said that pockets of famine-like conditions (IPC Phase 5) already exist and warned that the number of people experiencing catastrophic food insecurity could nearly triple from 16,500 currently to 47,000 people by June 2021. Since then, UN officials have repeatedly said that 50,000 people are experiencing famine-like conditions.

The FAO, UNICEF and WFP highlighted the deteriorating situation in South Sudan in an 18 December 2020 joint statement. According to an IPC analysis conducted in October and November 2020, 6.5 million people in South Sudan were facing severe food insecurity due to fighting, the COVID-19 pandemic and severe flooding. The number could grow to 7.24 million by July. Two independent reports published by the IPC Global Support Unit the week before found that six counties were likely already experiencing famine.

The September 2020 OCHA white paper reported that in the DRC nearly 22 million people were acutely food insecure, the highest number in the world—a result of COVID-19 compounding the impact of decades of conflict. On 22 February, two WFP vehicles came under fire in the eastern DRC, resulting in the death of the Italian ambassador to the DRC, a Carabinieri police officer from the Italian embassy, and a WFP staff member.

During the 17 September 2020 VTC, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said violence in the Sahel has forcibly displaced more than 1 million people, most of whom are dependent on agriculture. Some 14 million people were experiencing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, the highest figure in a decade. In Burkina Faso alone, 3.3 million people were acutely food insecure, with 11,000 people reported as experiencing famine conditions. Violence related to the terrorist group Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria continues to contribute to widespread food insecurity. The UN projects that up to 5.1 million people in north-east Nigeria could become critically food insecure during the next lean season period from June to August—a level similar to the situation in 2016-2017 when there were reports about possible famine, according to a UN press release.

Of looming concern is Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where fighting since November 2020 continues between government and allied Eritrean forces and those of the regional government. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is funded by the US, reported at the end of January that the conflict, access constraints for humanitarian actors and a deteriorating economy were driving emergency levels of hunger in central and eastern Tigray.

Key Issues and Options

Key issues include bringing the Council up to date on current conflict-driven food crises since its 17 September 2020 VTC, identifying potential food security crises, and considering where the Security Council should act or hold accountable individuals or entities responsible for food insecurity. Related to this is the Council’s responsibility to maintain humanitarian access, protect aid workers and respond to other forms of interference. As recalled in resolution 2417, the Council may impose sanctions on those who obstruct the delivery of, access to, or distribution of humanitarian assistance.

Other issues include whether to establish a UN focal point to support the implementation of resolution 2417, the importance of funding relief efforts as set out in the UN’s 2021 Global Humanitarian Overview, and mitigating the economic impact of armed conflict that contributes to food insecurity. Also important are the other factors worsening food insecurity in conflict situations, such as climate change and the pandemic, issues that themselves can be drivers of instability or conflict.

Council members may apply ideas raised at the debate to their consideration of country-specific situations. Members could call for invoking resolution 2417 to respond to warnings about the growing hunger crisis and challenges to humanitarian access in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Discussion may also feed into the upcoming Food Systems Summit to be hosted by Secretary-General António Guterres during the General Assembly’s high-level week in September.

Council Dynamics

Elected members have been important in advancing Council discussion on conflict-induced hunger since the Council first increased its focus on this issue in 2017. As noted, Niger and Ireland are replacing the Dominican Republic and Germany in chairing members’ informal briefings on food security in countries in conflict. The P3 have also supported such initiatives. In addition to the upcoming US-sponsored open debate, the UK appointed a Special Envoy for Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs in September 2020. During the UK’s February Council presidency, it also organised an informal meeting of like-minded Council members on resolution 2417. Russia does not agree with the Council’s consideration of conflict and hunger as a thematic subject as it feels that multiple factors contribute to hunger crises in conflict-affected countries and that the Council is not the appropriate mechanism to deal with the problem.

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Security Council Resolutions
24 May 2018S/RES/2417 This was a resolution on the link between armed conflict and food insecurity. It strongly condemned the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access.
Security Council Presidential Statements
29 April 2020S/PRST/2020/6 This was a presidential statement on conflict-induced hunger following up on measures laid out in resolution 2417, with an additional element on early warning systems.
9 August 2017S/PRST/2017/14 This was on the threat of famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and north-east Nigeria.