On a hot day in July, I attended a workshop in London for journalists focused on mass starvation and the international law surrounding it. The lawyers running the session had a message: starvation is not an inevitability. Famine and acute food insecurity is generally caused or exacerbated by human actions – it can be a result of bad governance, war tactics or opportunism.
I’ve thought about that when faced with constant headlines in recent weeks that reference the “global food crisis”. Around the world, millions of people are starving, as inflation soars and the cost of basic essentials go up, exacerbated by the Ukraine war and the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Kenya, where I currently am, four million people are facing acute food insecurity amid a record-breaking drought. In this broader region, more than 50 million people are expected to face crisis levels of food insecurity this year, according to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Some 300,000 people in Somalia and South Sudan may experience, or even already be experiencing, full-blown famine conditions (a famine can only be declared when a very specific series of criteria is met).
This year has seen record-breaking food prices across much of the world. But not everyone is suffering
The United Nations’ latest State of Food Security and Nutrition report showed that the number of people affected by hunger globally rose as high as 828 million in 2021. Wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, affected about 45 million children under the age of five. Almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020.
The denial of food has a long tail and not all consequences are immediately obvious. Undergoing a period of starvation can make those affected succumb to disease faster, or result in stunting in children, which will impact them for life. According to the UN, 149 million children under the age of five in 2020 had stunted growth and development due to a lack of nutrients.
It is important not to forget that behind every person starving there are also a series of political decisions or failures.
“Global food crisis is a broad term which covers all manner of acts and omissions,” said Catriona Murdoch, who works with non-profit legal practice Global Rights Compliance (GRC).
“At present five countries are in integrated food security phase classification (IPC) phase five – with catastrophic levels of hunger – Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan. Yet when we do see the headlines relating to these countries they are humanitarian appeals rather than calls for accountability for those responsible.”
She said there is an urgent need to “increase the literacy around the notion of starvation violations across a range of sectors, from police, immigration departments, journalists, courts and tribunals, investigators, and within humanitarian agencies. It is critical we are able to identify this violation and call it out loudly when we see or suspect it.”
While there are different tools that could be used, one particularly important development was UN Security Council resolution 2417, she says, which “shifted the debate [around starvation] away from poverty and climate into the arena of peace and security”. Adopted in 2018, it explicitly condemns the deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war and the intentional blocking of humanitarian access, recognising that such violations may be crimes for which perpetrators could be held accountable.
GRC is currently investigating war crimes and starvation-related violations in Ukraine, which may provide the first test case when it comes to prosecuting crimes of starvation under international criminal law. Murdoch thinks a successful conviction there would make a difference more broadly “in relation to how we conceptualise the causes of famine and mass hunger”.
And starvation is not just an international crime when war is involved. In some cases, the starvation of a portion of a population may be considered a crime against humanity. But this can require the gathering of evidence around causation and mental intent, among other factors, and the law surrounding it is still developing.
Could international criminal prosecutions fuel the urge for other types of accountability too? And who could be held responsible? Businesspeople? Governments?
This year has seen record-breaking food prices across much of the world. But not everyone is suffering. In May, Oxfam released Profiting from Pain, a report that said that billionaires in the food and energy sectors saw their wealth rise by $453 billion (€438.4 million) in the last two years – the equivalent of more than $1 billion every two days. The fortunes of the world’s richest 20 billionaires are greater than the entire GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa, the international aid agency said, while calling for an end to “crisis profiteering” and “one-off solidarity taxes on billionaires’ pandemic windfalls”.
The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, an independent panel of experts, is also appealing for further analysis of the factors behind the food crisis. It says that the “failure to reform food systems”, including “excessive commodity speculation”, is driving up food prices globally. Its analysts are calling for debt relief and other support for food-importing countries; market transparency; the building up of regional grain reserves; and for the reduction of reliance on fertilisers. The most important thing to understand, they say, is that the global food crisis is a crisis of prices rather than availability. The world is at historically high levels of food production.
As lawyers expand this area of law, and analysts call for more understanding, they repeat the same message: there is enough food on the planet to feed everyone.