Skip to main content

Conflict-induced Food Insecurity

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what diplomatic steps he is taking to address conflict-induced food insecurity, and to hold accountable those violating international humanitarian law through the deliberate use of hunger as a weapon of war.

We use all our levers to address the issue of hunger during conflict. We use our diplomatic efforts, including in countries such as Sudan and in Gaza, where we push for humanitarian access. We use our funding and expertise as a development superpower, with £365 million of bilateral overseas aid spent on food security-related sectors. We also work through multilateral organisations, including at the United Nations under Resolution 2417, to call out the perpetrators of conflict-induced food insecurity.

My Lords, most conflict-related starvation occurs in internal and not international conflicts—most recently in South Sudan and Gaza. On 15 April, warning of famine in Sudan, the Foreign Secretary wrote that anyone

“supporting those responsible … must be held to account”.

What mechanism of accountability was he referring to? Given the ICC prosecutor’s action in seeking warrants, partly on the grounds of causing starvation as a weapon of war, that question is pertinent. In 2019, Article 8 of the Rome statute was unanimously amended to include deliberate starvation as a war crime, even in internal conflicts. Why, given the increasing prevalence of such acts and the UK’s support for the amendment five years ago, have we not yet ratified it?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we supported the Article 8 amendment but have not yet put it in place. It is still under discussion, and we want to get it right. That does not prevent us from taking action, including in Sudan, where we are trying to restart the Jeddah process between the combatants and make sure that we get aid in. Those are steps we can take now.

Does my noble friend agree that the reality is not just conflict-induced starvation? The world faces an increasing shortage of food, which will become an increasing challenge with the interaction between population explosion and climate change. Just look at one continent: Africa, in part of which crops are totally destroyed by drought and in another part of which they are totally destroyed by floods. That is replicated on other continents. Is it not clear that hunger and starvation will now be a major issue as the population increases and the weather becomes more erratic?

My noble friend is completely right about that. We can see from the statistics that acute food insecurity is at a five-year high. The Global Report on Food Crises this year indicated that over 281 million people worldwide faced high levels of food insecurity. I agree that climate change has an impact and population can have an impact, but what is driving this insecurity at the moment across Africa and elsewhere is conflict. Trying to unlock some of the peace processes in those conflicts is where we could have the biggest influence.

My Lords, the ICC chief prosecutor has said that there are reasonable grounds to accuse the Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel of a potential war crime, as we have heard. That war crime is the:

“Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.

I note that the noble Lord said that he will respect the ICC process. Does he agree that 90 trucks via the sea bridge hardly matches up to the 4,500 trucks prevented from entering via Rafah? Does he agree that, as a first step, funding must be restored to UNRWA, on which the aid agencies heavily depend for logistics and delivery capacity?

I will answer both parts of that question. On the entry of aid into Gaza, it is absolutely right that Israel has not met some of its promises, like the 500 trucks a day, but there are other areas, like having this new pier on the beach in Gaza, from which aid, including British aid, has been distributed. That is a step forward, as is opening Ashdod port, where flour for bakeries has been delivered. Those do not look to me like acts of a nation embarked on genocide and war crimes, but of course we must keep up the pressure elsewhere.

I totally understand and respect the fact that UNRWA is vital for the onward distribution of aid—I discussed this with the head of the World Food Programme just last week—but we have to be cognisant that reports that UNRWA staff were involved in 7 October need to be properly investigated and properly dealt with. Two reports have been commissioned, but we have had only one. I want to see that second report and I want really strong undertakings from UNRWA so that we know our money is going to the right cause.

My noble friend mentioned Sudan, and the Secretary of State is absolutely right to talk about conflict and food insecurity. One area is Tigray in Ethiopia: that conflict has spread much wider than Tigray, and food insecurity is running extremely high in Ethiopia. Certainly from the figures I have seen, 60% to 70% of pregnant and breastfeeding women in the north are experiencing malnutrition, which will affect those children for many years. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly what we are doing with the Ethiopian Government to halt that extension of something as evil as malnutrition, which is affecting women, girls and children?

We co-hosted a humanitarian pledging conference in April in response to the rapidly escalating needs in Ethiopia. The conference mobilised $610 million towards the $1 billion we think is needed. At that conference, the Deputy Foreign Secretary announced £100 million in humanitarian funding. He has travelled to the region and meets and speaks regularly with President Abiy.

My Lords, I will follow on from what the Foreign Secretary said about Sudan. This is truly a forgotten crisis, with 25 million people displaced, 25 million needing humanitarian aid, and 1.8 million fleeing into surrounding countries. Does he share my concern that the crisis moving from Darfur to Sudan’s arable farming area in the al-Jazirah province will lead to even more food insecurity and refugees? With Europe facing its own refugee crisis, including the channel crossing disasters, does he agree that this underlines the need for these migrant crises to be dealt with upstream and at source? Will he redouble our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts?

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point. Something like 9 million people have been displaced in the Sudan conflict, the scale of which puts other refugee crises into perspective. Eighteen million people are acutely food insecure, 5 million of whom we believe to be in an emergency situation. We need the Jeddah political process to get going; the SAF and the RSF are both at fault in their attacks on each other and the destruction they are bringing to that country. He is completely right to say that all our efforts to stabilise these situations, to provide aid and to help are good and right in themselves —they are moral acts by a country that believes in playing a moral role—but also help our own security by preventing large-scale movements of people. It is very important that we frame this in both contexts.

My Lords, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the other countries that initially blocked funding for UNRWA have now restored it, with the exception of the United States? Why will the UK not restore funding as well, given the urgency to get UNRWA working again and delivering the aid so desperately needed by starving members of the Gazan population?

Our past pledges to UNRWA already take us up to something like the end of May, so it is not short of money on our account and has had additional funding from other countries. I want us to be meticulous on behalf of our taxpayers and all those—including myself—who are concerned about the fact that UNRWA staff took part on 7 October. We have seen the Colonna report, but we have not seen the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services report. I want to see that, and I want Philippe Lazzarini, who runs UNRWA, to make very clear statements about how that organisation will be run in future so that we can have confidence that our funding will not just deliver aid but help to deliver an organisation that is truly impartial.

My Lords, the noble Lord talked about food entering Gaza. Month after month from that Dispatch Box, he has said that Israel must do more. We have seen that it has not done more. He referred to the temporary port that has been built and there have been droppings by sea. We have seen that they are not fit for purpose; people have been killed trying to access food dropped from the air. The Rafah crossing, which is vital for the majority of aid to get through, has now been closed for 17 days. There are thousands of trucks just kilometres away waiting to deliver food. What pressure is he putting on and what diplomatic efforts are taking place to ensure that some of these crossings happen, so that people do not starve to death waiting for food that is on the other side of the crossing?

I say two things to the noble Baroness. First, the Rafah crossing closed when the Israelis took over the Gazan side of it. There is a dispute now between the Egyptians, who have closed it on the other side, and the Israelis on the Gazan side. I do not want to apportion blame; all I know is that they are talking to each other and that the Americans are working extremely hard to bring them together to get a solution. We need Rafah open.

On the second point, I take issue with the noble Baroness. Yes, I am the first to say that Israel has not done as much as is needed, but it is not true that it has never responded to pressure. We asked it to open Kerem Shalom; it opened Kerem Shalom. We asked it to open a crossing in the north; Erez is now open. We pushed it again and again on the opening of Ashdod port; that is now open. There are not as many ships as I would like, but we have UK involvement in the Cyprus maritime corridor. Also, the Americans, others, and ourselves said that if it would accept a pier on the beach, we do not think it is necessarily the best way of doing things but it means that the aid goes directly into Gaza. That is now there. It is not true or fair to say that action has not been taken. It just has not been enough, and we will keep pushing. I am speaking to Minister Gantz in about half an hour, and I will have another good go then.