US Congressmen Pressure UN to Outlaw Denial of Food
THE POLITICS OF STARVATION
MORE than a year ago satellite photos provided the first clear warning that three consecutive years of drought were on the verge of throwing Sudan into a severe food crisis.Anxious to avoid a repetition of the devastating African famine that claimed more than 2 million lives in 1985, international relief agencies quickly prepared to develop a plan to stockpile emergency food supplies. But for reasons having to do mostly with domestic and international politics, Sudanese Prime Minister Hasan Ahmad Al-Bashir refused to cooperate until it was too late. The result: a famine that relief officials say could have been avoided and that places the lives of 10 million Sudanese in jeopardy. Determined to prevent food from once again becoming an instrument of politics, a group of members of the United States House of Representatives is spearheading a controversial proposal that would make denial of food a human-rights violation. The proposal is contained in an amendment to a House foreign aid bill passed last month that also calls for the UN to overhaul its disaster response procedures and to create a permanent UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs. Legal scholars say the plan is likely to be opposed by many third-world nations, which will see it as license for the international community to infringe on sovereign rights won after decades of resistance to colonialism. But sponsors of the measure say these very sovereign rights have been abused too often by regimes that govern with tenuous mandates and with cruel disregard for the welfare of their own people. "We shouldn't be forced to witness starvation from the sidelines," says Rep. Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on Hunger, which drafted the proposal. "We have to do everything we can to make it a crime to starve people to death." "Sovereignty has its privileges but also its responsibility not to abuse civilian populations," adds Roger Winter, director of the US Committee for Refugees. "If you do, your sovereignty should be infringed." If the plan is approved by the Senate and backed by the Bush administration, the United States ambassador to the UN would be instructed to propose that the General Assembly draft and adopt a food convention. If the idea gets this far, it is likely to trigger a far-reaching legal and philosophical debate. Since its inception, the UN has steered a careful course between two conflicting mandates: ON the one hand, it has forsworn intervention in the internal affairs of members nations, consistent with provisions of the UN Charter. On the other hand, the charter gives the UN the right to intervene if the Security Council determines that peace is threatened or in clear cases of aggression. The question posed by the House initiative is whether human rights should prevail over sovereign rights when food is used as a political weapon. The forced delivery of food supplies would not be automatic, say the bill's sponsors, but would be the culmination of a process that could first pass through a process of appeals, resolutions of condemnation, and perhaps even sanctions against governments that refuse to accept outside aid. "There's an evolving new morality about this issue," says Mr. Winter. "What we're calling for is an established procedure that would apply when you have a rogue government that places its own welfare over the lives of millions of people." Backers of the House legislation say the end of the cold war has made it possible to discuss intervention with the discrete aim of alleviating famine without running afoul of geopolitical concerns. A significant precedent for intervention was set when the UN broke with tradition last February and allowed international relief agencies to deliver emergency food and medical supplies to Kurdish refugees over the protests of the Iraqi government. "In the past, sovereignty has always taken precedence, even if people suffer and die," says a congressional source. "What happened after the Gulf war was that the international community said the human rights of Kurds were more important than the sovereign rights of Iraq. Having crossed that Ribicon we're not going to cross back." With several rebellious republics appealing for outside support, the Soviet Union is unlikely to welcome any measure that would call into question the inviolability of national boundaries. Many third-world countries are also likely to view the House proposal with suspicion because of painful memories of foreign intervention. "The third world is much more sensitive on the grounds of nationalism," says Ved Nanda, director of the International Legal Studies Program at the University of Denver law school and a strong advocate of a food convention. "They have seen the Security Council used by the US in the Iraqi situation and fear that a convention could be an instrument of colonial intervention." "Famine is not an inevitable result of drought, it's a man-made occurrence," Winter says. "We need the tools of international law that would help us circumvent man-made obstacles. Any new world order worth its salt would provide for something like this."