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Sudan's Needless Tragedy

Allowing preventable starvation must become an international crime

WHILE world attention has been focused on the rule of international law in the Gulf, the world community has yet to prevent a human rights tragedy being perpetrated in Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Sudanese are being allowed to starve to death. Amazingly, despite an array of laws and conventions on humanitarian issues, there is no enforcement procedure for such crimes. A year ago, the famine that now holds perhaps 10 million Sudanese hostage was only a glimmer on the horizon. Satellite photos relayed to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last winter predicted a drought that could lead to food shortages later. It's important to note, however, that natural calamities don't have to result in famine. With enough notice, international donor and relief organizations can design food shipment and distribution programs to deal with food shortages. Famin e death is unnecessary.

In the case of Sudan, however, donor and relief workers are faced with a series of manmade obstacles. While civil war in Sudan makes delivering relief difficult, restrictions placed on relief workers by the Sudanese government makes it impossible.

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In January of 1990, after the first satellite photos appeared, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir grounded all relief flights. As the FAO predicted, the summer rains were insufficient. Relief officials continued to sound the alarm, while war and weather disrupted farming and food production. Testimony before a House panel last fall warned that immediate action was necessary to avoid wholesale famine death. Yet inexplicably, surplus stocks from previous years were exported, depleting Sudan's food r eserves.

Meanwhile, the international donor community and relief community had been sidelined. The first step in organizing an international relief effort is for the head of government of the afflicted country to ask for help. Because of sovereignty considerations, relief organizations must be "invited" into a country. As the scope of the impending famine in Sudan grew, the international community waited for Bashir to formally request aid. He never did. In fact, he refused to acknowledge a famine existed.

Although he was given ample warning of disaster, and every opportunity to prevent any loss of life, President Bashir's refusal to ask for help is going to cause hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people to die this spring.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being 201> including food." The Protocols attached to the Geneva Conventions, have acknowledged that food is a basic human need.

However, the right to food has yet to move from hortatory language to practical application. Keeping food from people facing famine is against every moral and philosophical precept known to humanity. Unfortunately, there is little the world community can do now to prevent it.

The systematic denial of access to food to a population at risk of starvation ought to be a specific and enforceable violation of international law. It isn't. The community of nations should have a recognized diplomatic tool to pressure governments to act responsibly when faced with a preventable disaster. They don't. Finally, the UN ought to have a procedure for reacting immediately when confronted with a humanitarian crisis. It doesn't.

Two changes in policy and bureaucracy would make the right to food a practical, enforceable principle of international law:

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First, the United States should propose a specific UN Convention on the Right to Food, similar to conventions on torture or genocide, which would raise the issue to a higher level and spell out specifically how the right to food should be understood and enforced. Under such a convention, a signatory who used hunger as a weapon of war or an instrument of politics would be labeled a human rights violator.

Second, the UN should create an Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, who would have the exclusive responsibility for organizing relief efforts at the first indication of a crisis, and reporting to the Secretary-General and the UN Security Council if a country involved in a potential humanitarian crisis showed any reluctance to cooperate with international donor or relief efforts.

After the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine when as many as 1 million people lost their lives, a horrified world put in place various famine early warning systems - coordinated satellite transmission and weather tracking systems designed to predict drought and food shortages. It was assumed that if a famine could be predicted, it could be avoided. But it was never thought a government leader aware of an impending famine might refuse to prevent it.

Bashir has recently indicated he might be willing to cooperate with relief efforts (although relief and donor officials are skeptical of his motives). However, even if he is sincere, the death toll this spring will be hundreds of thousands. The tragedy is that any death in Sudan is unnecessary, and could have been prevented.

The time has come for the global community to clearly establish international standards and enforcement mechanisms to prevent such tragedies entirely.

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