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Presidential Statement on the Risk of Famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and North-East Nigeria

Tomorrow (9 August), the Council is expected to adopt a presidential statement expressing its grave concern about the threat of famine presently facing more than 20 million people in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and north-east Nigeria.

After the Council’s 16 June Arria-formula meeting on the risk of famine in these four conflict-affected countries, the co-conveners of the session (Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Italy, Japan, Senegal, Sweden, the UK, and the US) decided as follow-up to seek a Security Council presidential statement. During the Arria-formula meeting, discussion highlighted the hindrance of relief efforts due to access constraints caused by ongoing violence and restrictions imposed by belligerents, as well as shortages in humanitarian financing. Sweden prepared a draft presidential statement to cover key points from the session and for further action with input from the other co-conveners, which it shared with the full Council membership on 13 July.

The initiative stalled as Russia apparently felt that famine was not an appropriate issue for the Council, and was concerned about introducing such an agenda item. Russia therefore did not attend a first round of negotiations on 17 July. As an alternative, it seems that Russia suggested that the Council issue a letter of the president. Such a letter could still contain a request for a follow-up Secretary-General’s report, which appears to have been an important objective for the co-sponsors of the draft presidential statement.

As the impasse continued, the UK and the US suggested that instead of a presidential statement—which requires consensus to be adopted—they would seek a resolution and thus compel Russia to either abstain or veto. It seems that some of the other co-sponsors still preferred a presidential statement, believing that it was better to pursue this initiative through consensus. However, the prospect of having to engage on a possible UK/US draft resolution seems to have led Russia to agree by the end of July to work on the draft presidential statement, for which Sweden continued to press. Further negotiations were then held on 1 and 3 August, and a draft presidential statement passed silence on Monday morning (7 August).

One challenge during the negotiation of the draft presidential statement was members’ different views over the link between conflict and famine. While Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and north-east Nigeria are all affected by conflict, asserting this causality proved sensitive to some members since other factors also contribute to famine such as drought, climate change, and extreme poverty. The compromise that was reached characterises conflict as a “major” cause of famine in these situations.

Negotiations were complicated by trying to agree on a text that addresses the problems of these four situations, where there are differences as well as commonalities. It seems there were also difficulties in agreeing on the most appropriate language to address issues of international humanitarian law and access when there exists a number of sources of agreed language from which members could draw. The final draft presidential statement, inter alia, deplores the failure of certain parties in these conflict-affected countries to ensure unfettered and sustained access for deliveries of vital food assistance and other aid. It further reiterates the Council’s calls on all parties to allow safe, timely and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance, and to facilitate access for essential imports of food, fuel and medical supplies into each country and their distribution throughout them. The Council also calls on donors to immediately disburse pledged funds, and for member states to provide additional resources and funding.

An issue that proved difficult to negotiate among several elected members was a paragraph that sought to highlight the need to link humanitarian efforts with long-term peacebuilding and development work. Several elected members apparently felt that this issue was more appropriate for the General Assembly and not for the Council to highlight, while others wanted to make clear the need to enhance cooperation between humanitarian and development actors. The final text is less explicit than initially drafted, containing a much shorter paragraph that stresses the need to enhance longer-term recovery and resilience of conflict-affected countries.

The draft presidential statement requests the Secretary-General to provide an oral briefing during the month of October on country-specific impediments to an effective response to the risk of famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and north-east Nigeria, and to make specific recommendations on how to address these impediments. Initially, the co-sponsors of the draft proposed a written report, which Russia objected to and which would take the Secretariat time to produce, leading to the request for an oral briefing. (The original idea to have this briefing in September was pushed back to October for scheduling purposes.)

The additional request for the Secretary-General to provide early warning of an imminent risk of famine emerged as a controversial point towards the end of the negotiations. Russia said that it could only accept this proposal for situations on the Council’s agenda, while the UK and the US were keen that this be broader. It took negotiations between Russia, Sweden and the US to come up with a compromise formulation, which now requests early warning “when a conflict having devastating humanitarian consequences and hindering an effective humanitarian response risks leading to an outbreak of famine”.

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