In a recent report on "Prevention of Armed Conflict," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recalls the mission of the United Nations to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," and he states that preventing armed conflict is the most effective means to ensure lasting peace and security rather than trying to stop conflict or alleviate its symptoms.
According to Mr. Annan, the first step towards preventing conflict includes identifying and addressing the multi-dimensional root causes of armed conflict. "The proximate cause of conflict may be an outbreak of public disorder or a protest over a particular incident, but the root cause may be socio-economic inequities and inequalities, systematic ethnic discrimination, denial of human rights, or long-standing grievances over land and other resources allocation."
One of these root causes that needs to be considered is hunger. Hunger and conflict are closely linked, as pointed out in the report. In both internal and intra-state wars the control or disruption of food sources and supplies is often used as a means of waging war and/or as a means of starving out civilians from the opposing groups. Last month, the head of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) warned that, "undernourishment and starvation should not be considered less serious than blatant violations of other human rights." The deliberate starvation of civilians and the use of food as a method of warfare are forbidden under the Geneva Conventions and are a violation of the right to food, as is blocking humanitarian assistance to people in dire need.
Humanitarian action clearly plays a crucial role in alleviating the plight of affected civilian populations in crisis, and furthermore, the role of UN agencies and programmes in preventing conflict falls within their work in the areas of food security, refugees, health and children. Food production and supplies are among the first casualties of a conflict situation. Forced displacement of peoples prevents them from engaging in normal food production and acquisition. Due to the tensions that can erupt over limited resource bases, the World Food Program (WFP) and FAO have sought ways to provide food aid to ensure access to land resources by the poor, as well as support natural resource development activities. By ensuring that its resources are targeted at vulnerable and marginalized groups and areas and by meeting their basic food needs, WFP can make an important contribution to social and political stability. Food aid can also be a catalyst for rehabilitation and development.
Among other considerations for humanitarian action to prevent conflict, Kofi Annan states in his report that preventing displacement of civilians can be integral to preventing conflict. "Unemployed and disaffected men and youth who are internally displaced are very vulnerable to recruitments by belligerents. Their lack of hope for the future can fuel disaffection with society and make them susceptible to the blandishments of those who advocate armed conflict." The scars from previous bouts of violent conflict, particularly those inflictions against children, can undermine a country's capacity to prevent disputes from deteriorating into violent armed conflicts. Children, as well as women, are often the most consistently and severely affected by the ravages of armed conflict.
Women and children constitute 75-80% of the world's millions of refugees. They are threatened by the deprivation of poverty, goods and services and deprivation of their right to return to their homes of origin as well as by violence and insecurity. Women and children who have been displaced during times of conflict face situations that are serious obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights. Among the obstacles and violations they face are discrimination, rape, torture, denial of social/cultural rights, poverty and hunger. Their hunger weakens them in at a crucial time when they need strength to endure the hardships and danger of armed conflict and displacement. The right to freedom from hunger is fundamental and it should be recognized as indispensable for the protection of human dignity.
National governments have as much of an obligation to take action to protect the right to food as they do to protect civil and political rights of citizens who have suffered other human rights abuses. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states, "The State Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international cooperation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food...
(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need."