HORN OF AFRICA: U.N. Shares Responsibility in Famine, Experts Say

Published on IPS, by Gustavo Capdevila, August 10, 2011.

GENEVA /IPS – The United Nations Human Rights Council should accept responsibility, on behalf of the world forum, for the famine spreading through eastern Africa, and should call for member countries’ cooperation to overcome the desperate food crisis there, experts said.

One of the 18 independent experts on the advisory committee to the Council, Chilean academic José Antonio Bengoa, set forth the idea of asking for an urgent special session, in an attempt to draw the attention of the international community to the gravity of the crisis in the Horn of Africa.  

At its seventh session, which opened in Geneva Monday Aug. 8 and ends Friday Aug. 12, the advisory committee decided to send a letter to the Human Rights Council http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/
requesting that it consider holding a special session, in accordance with Bengoa’s proposal.

Bengoa described to IPS the famine conditions in five countries in the region: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, which require immediate action by the Council, the United Nations’ top human rights body.

However, the World Food Programme (WFP) “is utterly bankrupt at the moment,” Bengoa said.

Left in the lurch by defaulting donors, the WFP is in “a scandalous situation, and it barely has enough food for the next few days,” he said.

Jean Ziegler of Switzerland, another expert on the advisory committee, and a former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food (2000-2008), said Bengoa’s idea for the Council to issue a declaration about the famine “is a useful proposal, because the U.N. and non-governmental organisations are helpless in the face of this appalling catastrophe.”

Over the past two years the WFP’s budgeted income has been pruned by half, Ziegler told IPS. In 2008 it received six billion dollars, but this year it has only 2.8 billion dollars in hand, he said … //

… Ziegler pointed out that none of the five affected countries have a stock of food reserves, because the drought has dragged on for five years, with harvests diminishing gradually to vanishing point. This shows that the present situation could have been foreseen, he said.

“They have no food reserves because food commodity prices have soared due to speculation, because hedge fund capital has flown from financial markets that were making big losses, into agricultural commodity exchanges,” he said.

When countries cannot afford to stockpile emergency food reserves because of high prices, people’s right to food is negated, the expert said. “So, speculation with the prices of basic foods – rice, maize and wheat, which provide 75 percent of normal consumption – should be banned,” he said.

Ziegler put forward his interpretation of some recent episodes on the international financial market related to the present crisis in the Horn of Africa.

Greece was recently granted a 157 billion dollar financial bailout, he noted – money that was sent to Greece so it could pay Western banks what they were owed. Meanwhile, at a conference in Nairobi, the WFP asked for 4.2 billion dollars for the period Jul. 15 to Aug. 15, and only secured one-third of this amount.

Germany, Italy, Spain and other European countries can forward billions of euros to their banks, Ziegler continued, yet the same countries have slashed their WFP contributions since October 2008.

To restore the right to food, stock market speculation on staple foods must be banned, states must be obliged to honour their statutory obligations under the convention establishing the WFP, and the debt of countries most affected by the present famine must be drastically reduced, Ziegler said. /END. (full text).

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