According the UN humanitarian chief, the world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. He specifically referred to four countries in which over 20 million people are currently facing large-scale famines—South Sudan (its government declared a state of famine in parts of the country a few months ago), Yemen, Somalia, and North Nigeria.
All these famines are man-made and have little to do with weather conditions (except Somalia where drought has played a role) as all these countries are either under attack or are suffering from internal strife. To this one can add other countries such as parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, CAR, Mali, etc that also face huge food shortages. According to some agencies over 70 million people across Africa face famine-like situation in coming months in 19 countries across Africa. See: http://africacenter.org/spotlight/acute-food-insecurity-conflict-africa, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/21/horn-f21.html, https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/70-million-africans-in-danger-of-famine/
Even a cursory glance at the history of these conflicts show the famine-like situation being bemoaned by the UN could be foreseen. For instance, there was a famine in Somalia in 2011 that claimed over 250000 lives. And the reason of that famine was the same as it is today: military intervention of external powers. In 2011 the military intervention was intensified after the famine was announced, which prevented humanitarian aid from reaching starving people.
The aim of this commentary is to not analyse the historic context of these conflicts but rather to rhetorically ask: what kind of a world we live in where such eminently preventable tragedies are allowed to occur and recur on such a scale. What is the role of media, international diplomacy, e.g. UN, in reporting and preventing such crises.
First, it should be recognized that one of the two sides in all these conflicts are either Western powers or those backed by them. This explains the media coverage of these conflicts. While the Western and Arab media continues its ad nauseam coverage of Syrian conflict with Syrian government and Russia being projected as the main guilty parties, its coverage of conflicts in countries under discussion steers clear of any historical-political analysis.
This is not true of just corporate right-wing media but even of the left-leaning media.
South Sudan offers one example. It has been on the verge of famine for close to four years now. It is formally correct to blame the country’s civil war for the present predicament. But who are the important players in this civil war? A draft report of AU on the civil war could be a good starting point to understand the dynamics of this war (while the draft report was published in 2014, the final report was delayed, deliberately according to many human rights organizations, and was not published until late 2015. The final report was a highly diluted version of the draft report, focussing more on the failure of institutions inside South Sudan rather than identifying the principle reasons for the breakout of the civil war). The draft reports holds the government responsible for starting the civil war by ethnic cleansing of an entire tribal group from the capital Juba over a period of one week in 2013. The tribal group was the same vice president belonged to. This acts probably killed thousands of people according to sources (at least 300 bodies were counted by international journalists but no one has a precise number because the media was pressured to not cover it) and expelled over 100000 people from the capital. It was a deliberate attempt to turn a political conflict into a tribal conflict. The report also points the finger at the troika (US, UK, Norway) for the failure of peace talks. It is well known that present ruling elite of South Sudan emerged from Sudanese civil war (that ended in 2005) and were backed by the US during and after the civil war. The troika along with other African countries such as Uganda (backed by the US, Ugandan army has intervened in the civil war on the side of the government), and UN ensured South Sudan remained a still-born state. As the draft report notes: “To think of South Sudan as a failed state is to overlook the simple fact that the very political foundation for the existence of a state – a political compact – has yet to be forged within the elite and between the communities that comprise South Sudan.”
It is hardly surprising that international elite have done little to end the conflict which they can readily do through serious mediation, e.g. they can start by allowing UN and AU troops to prevent violence against civilians by either party. They routinely use the pretext of ‘violence against civilians’ to intervene and use UN and AU troops for their own political ends (e.g. Sierra Lione (2000), Somalia, CAR (ongoing)). But this option is off the table in South Sudan because they have chosen their side, which they back with weapons, other aid, and diplomatic cover at UN and other multilateral bodies. This group includes Chinese elite as they also recognize its strategic importance and eye resources of South Sudan.
If South Sudan presents somewhat complex situation, the other cases are far simpler: Yemen, Somalia, and North Nigeria are under attack and there is fair evidence starvation of population is a deliberate policy.
According to UN, over 17 million people face imminent famine in Yemen. Yemen is not only under attack by Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies they have also blockaded Yemen ports (even though Egypt and US troops are not directly involved in Saudi assault their ships have helped keep this naval blockade in place) to prevent needed food imports and humanitarian aid from flowing in. In addition, Saudi Arabia has bombed warehouses with food supplies, other civilian infrastructure, and the only port capable of receiving large ships carrying desperately needed food and other supplies.
International media and diplomatic agents have tried to portray this assault as a war between Saudi and Iranian hegemony in Yemen, even though there exists no evidence Iran is involved in the conflict (see article above). What role has international diplomacy played as negotiators? According to UN mediator Benomar, Houthis had conceded most of the demands of Saudi-backed side, including no more than 20% share in the government, when Saudis attacked.
Saudis followed a time-honoured imperialist trend by attacking when they already were winning on the negotiating table. US attacked Iraq in 1991 when Iraq had already agreed to withdraw from Kuwait. The US further drove the point home when they bombed soldiers withdrawing from Kuwait, killing thousands of them. US assaulted Iraq in 2003 on false pretext and after Saddam had agreed to leave Iraq. US attacked Afghanistan in 2001 after Taliban had agreed to extradite Osama to a neutral location for
a trial for his putative role in 9/11. Taliban again tried negotiating in 2002 with conditions highly favourable to US allies in Afghanistan but the offer was spurned. Prior to Nato’s unprovoked attack on Libya in 2011 the only side that sought negotiations was Libyan government. We see the same trend before Nato attack on Serbia and the ongoing destablization of Syria. The negotiations failed in these situations because impossible conditions were imposed as preconditions to a peace accord, e.g. the dismantling of the current Syrian government. As has been shown by umpteen studies, it is Israel not Palestinian groups that violates truce on every single occasion, e.g. http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/12/gaza-quiz/
So Saudi unprovoked genocidal assault on Yemen has fair precedence in the conduct of Western imperial powers, who also happen to be the principle backers of Saudi regime.
It is expected from the corporate media to overlook the basic fact that it is the weaker parties that seek negotiations while the powerful attack to fulfill their agenda which they obfuscate by the farce of negotiations. But the so-called left in the west play their part in aiding western powers by symmetrizing an essentially asymmetric power relation. One of the social construct they use quite effectively is humanitarian
As an example of how humanitarian outlook can completely mask the underlying political processes, see: https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/20-million-could-starve-to-death-within-six-months/
Another upcoming humanitarian catastrophe that hasn’t been called famine yet is likely to occur in Venezuela. According to a study by three universities in Venezuela, over 75% of Venezuelan population has lost over 8 kg in weight over the past three years. Nearly 32% of the population is not able to eat more than two times a day and 93% of the population might not have income to cover basic food expenses. It would be easy to attribute this state of affairs to falling oil prices, high inflation, poor governance, etc. However, this is the price Venezuelan working and middle classes are paying for being part of a political process which deviated from the dominant neoliberal line.
The world has seen an unprecedented rise of the right-wing forces in the so-called neoliberal era. The ongoing famines are a natural outcome of these political changes across the world. One can shy away from analysing these political processes and pin the cause of a famine on an irrational civil war, a breakdown of governance, economic downturn, etc., apportioning blame on both sides or other apolitical processes. Then one can go further and show humanitarian concern.
But given the way the world has moved in the recent past, these famines represent tip of the iceberg. And if the underlying political causes of these famines are not resisted worldwide, they will only get more perverse in times to come.