Protection of Civilians
Expected Council Action
In May, the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on the protection of civilians (PoC) in armed conflict. Switzerland, the Council president for the month, is convening the debate as a ministerial-level signature event with an expected focus on food insecurity and the protection of essential services in conflict situations. Secretary-General António Guterres, ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, and a female civil society representative are expected to brief. President of the Swiss Confederation Alain Berset will chair the meeting.
Council members will receive the Secretary-General’s annual PoC report by mid-May.
Background and Key Recent Developments
This year’s debate is expected to focus on the intertwined challenges of conflict-induced food insecurity and the protection of critical civilian infrastructure and essential services in conflict. It will provide an opportunity to review implementation of two relevant resolutions in this regard: resolution 2417 on armed conflict and food security, adopted on 24 May 2018, and resolution 2573 on the protection of indispensable civilian objects, adopted on 27 April 2021.
Resolution 2417 identified how conflict contributes to hunger—either through the direct effects of war, such as displacement from farming or grazing land and the destruction of agricultural assets, or indirectly by disrupting markets and increasing food prices. The resolution called on conflict parties to comply with relevant international law, including the Geneva Conventions; condemned the use of starvation as a method of warfare; and recalled that the Council had adopted and could consider adopting new sanctions on those responsible for obstructing humanitarian assistance. Additionally, the resolution called on the Secretary-General to report to the Council swiftly when there is an acute 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.
Resolution 2573 condemned attacks against civilians and civilian objects in situations of armed conflict and demanded that all parties to conflict cease such practices. It further encouraged efforts to protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, which may include those objects essential for food production and distribution. The resolution urged conflict parties to ensure the proper functioning of food systems and markets in situations of armed conflict and—like resolution 2417—condemned the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, which it noted may constitute a war crime.
Recent years have seen a resurgence in global food insecurity, primarily driven by conflict. According to the 2023 global food policy report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity nearly doubled between 2016 and 2022 to 205 million people in 45 countries, “most [of whom] live in protracted crisis situations…marked by prolonged civil strife and conflict, repeated weather shocks, and economic decline, or some combination thereof”. The most recent biannual joint report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) monitoring food security in conflict situations—published in November 2022—provided more detail on specific country situations. Using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system, the report listed Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen as “hunger hotspots of highest concern”, with populations facing or projected to face starvation (Catastrophe, IPC Phase 5) or at risk of deterioration towards catastrophic conditions as they already have critical food insecurity (Emergency, IPC Phase 4) and are facing severe aggravating factors. The report said that while food crises in these countries “continue to be driven by multiple, interlinked drivers that are often mutually reinforcing, conflict/insecurity remains the main driver”, in part due to the “impact on essential food systems and objects indispensable to the survival of civilian populations”.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also highlighted the links between conflict, hunger, and critical civilian infrastructure. As Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s most significant producers of agricultural commodities and—in the case of Russia—fertilisers, the war has further exacerbated food insecurity worldwide. According to IFPRI’s 2023 report, international food prices rose 32 percent, and fertiliser prices tripled following Russia’s invasion, and while these prices have since fallen, they “remain high by historical standards”. Additionally, hunger is rising inside Ukraine, partially as a result of Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure, which have targeted Ukraine’s grain silos and water supply. The ICC recently announced that it would initiate a case against Russia for attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.
In accordance with resolution 2417, OCHA has submitted a number of “white notes” to the Council, alerting it to acute situations of conflict-induced food. These have pertained to South Sudan (August 2018); Yemen (October 2018); the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen (September 2020); northern Ethiopia (May 2021); and northern Ethiopia, northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen (August 2022).
May’s debate follows several Council meetings over the past year on conflict, food security, and the protection of civilian infrastructure. In April 2022, Ireland organised an Arria-formula meeting on conflict and hunger. In May 2022, the US convened a ministerial-level open debate on conflict and food security as a signature event of its Council presidency after organising a similar high-level open debate during its March 2021 presidency. In September 2022, the Council convened a briefing on armed conflict and food security following the issuance of OCHA’s latest white note. In October 2022, France and then-Council member Mexico—the humanitarian co-penholders on Ukraine—convened a briefing on the protection of civilians and critical infrastructure in the country. In March, Mozambique and Switzerland convened a ministerial-level Arria-formula meeting on “Protection of Water-related Essential Services and Infrastructure During Armed Conflicts”.
Key Issues and Options
Identifying existing and potential conflict-related food security crises and addressing the increase in conflict-induced hunger are key issues for the Council. Related to this is the Council’s responsibility to maintain humanitarian access, protect aid workers and hold conflict parties accountable for depriving civilians of food by targeting food production and systems or other critical infrastructure. As recalled in resolution 2417, the Council may impose sanctions on those who obstruct the delivery of, access to, or distribution of humanitarian assistance.
The impact of the war in Ukraine on food insecurity is another prominent issue. This includes the war’s effects on Ukraine’s agricultural productivity and exports and the possible consequences for the global food system of the sanctions imposed on Russia. In this context, Council members may urge the conflict parties to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is set to expire in May and has reportedly been the subject of renewed tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
An additional key issue is reporting to the Council on acute situations of conflict-induced food insecurity, as mandated by resolution 2417. One option Council members have considered is requesting the Secretariat to submit white notes more regularly on such situations. Related to this is whether the information provided is sufficiently detailed for the Council to take action; members could encourage the Secretariat to include more information that identifies specific violations of international humanitarian law that cause food insecurity, including attacks on critical civilian infrastructure. Members could also consider creating UN special envoys or focal points on the implementation of resolutions 2417 and 2573 or, similarly, consider the recommendation made in the most recent FAO-WFP report to establish an independent body of experts to collect and channel critical information to enable the Security Council and the Secretary-General to take preventive action.
Several members are keen to see the Council be more active in considering and addressing conflict-induced hunger. Council members France, Ecuador, Switzerland, the UK, and the US are part of a 14-member Group of Friends of Action on Conflict and Hunger. The group also includes recent Council members Estonia, Ireland, Mexico, Niger, and Norway.
Other members have expressed scepticism about the Council’s consideration of conflict and hunger. Russia has argued that the Council is not the appropriate body to consider food insecurity as a thematic issue since other UN organs are mandated to address hunger, which can have multiple causes. Brazil has stressed that the Council has a role in addressing conflict-induced hunger but should not highlight hunger as a cause of conflict, which they contend is a development and peacebuilding issue. Some members have also been wary about hunger being used as a pretext for adding country situations to the Council’s agenda.
There have also been differences of view over the reporting that the Council should receive from the Secretariat on hunger and conflict. In March 2021, the Council failed to agree on a US-proposed presidential statement that would have requested a biannual report from the Secretary-General on the issue. At the April 2022 Arria-formula meeting, the US similarly called on OCHA to provide biannual white notes on acute situations of conflict-induced food insecurity. Members opposed to increased reporting on this issue have either questioned its value given existing reporting requirements or argued that resolution 2417 should be interpreted as requesting the Secretariat to provide white notes as risks arise, which is not compatible with a periodic reporting mandate. Additionally, some members argue that efforts should concentrate on integrating conflict-induced hunger as a cross-cutting issue into discussions of country situations—similar to the woman, peace, and security (WPS) agenda—and that additional stand-alone reporting on the issue might insulate it from broader attention.
Another dynamic is members’ diverging views about the role of the Ukraine war on global hunger. Some members highlight Russia’s responsibility for having invaded Ukraine, while Russia points to the negative effect of unilateral sanctions. The US has stressed that the sanctions on Russia do not apply to food and agricultural products.
UN DOCUMENTS ON PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS
|Security Council Resolutions|
|27 APRIL 2021S/RES/2573||The Council unanimously condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure in conflict.|
|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.|
|10 MAY 2022S/2022/381||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on protection of civilians in armed conflict.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|19 MAY 2022S/PV.9036||This was a Council ministerial-level open debate on conflict and food security.|
|Security Council Letters|
|21 NOVEMBER 2022S/2022/875||This was a letter dated 21 November 2022 from the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council, transmitting the eleventh issue of the update entitled “Monitoring food security in food crisis countries with conflict situations”, which is jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Programme for the members of the Security Council.|