Remarks at a Security Council Briefing on Yemen, South Sudan, and Somalia

Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
March 10, 2017



Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Under-Secretary-General O’Brien.

Clearly, Under-Secretary-General O’Brien’s briefing was not just a set of business-as-usual remarks. Stephen just described what could soon become the most serious food security emergency in the modern era, unless Member States of this United Nations act now to stop it. The UN is warning us that more than 20 million people are starving in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Lake Chad Basin. As Stephen has briefed us, famine has already been declared in some areas of South Sudan and could soon follow in Yemen, Somalia, and the Lake Chad Basin if the international community does not intervene and intervene now.

Every member of this Security Council and of this United Nations should be outraged that we are confronting famine in the year 2017. Famine is a manmade crisis, with manmade solutions. No country should be destined to face famine in a world that has more than enough food to feed every single person.

But it’s not too late to prevent famine from spreading. It’s not inevitable. But preventing famine means that the parties fighting on the ground have to prioritize access to food, access healthcare and other life-saving aid, and take measures to reduce the impact of hostilities on the civilian population. So we call on the members of this Council to use their influence over the parties in these four situations to allow unfettered access and not obstruct aid. Additionally, it is vital that the UN and its partners have the resources they need in order to respond. Right now, the four appeals for Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria are just 1.6 percent funded. So we’ve got to collectively contribute more to this relief effort.

By numbers of people at risk, the stakes in Yemen are the highest, as Stephen has impressed upon us. The UN has assessed that 65 percent of all households in Yemen are food insecure. 7.3 million people need food emergency aid, and 460,000 children under five years old – children under five years old – are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which is up 200 percent since 2014. And we hear that UNICEF is now estimating that one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from malnutrition-related causes. We know that Yemen is overwhelmingly dependent on imports for its food and that humanitarian aid is insufficient to meet the enormity of the need. Commercial food imports are critical to averting famine.

And just like all three other cases, in Yemen, an end to the conflict would do the most to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. And that is why the United States supports UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s efforts to renew the Cessation of Hostilities and bring the parties back to the table for negotiations. There is no military solution to this conflict Yemen; a comprehensive peace will require compromise from all sides for the sake of Yemen’s people.

But while the conflict continues, the parties must allow sustained access both for humanitarian aid and for commercial imports of food, medicine, fuel, and other basic supplies. These essential goods must be able to arrive through all of Yemen’s ports, and they must be able to move within Yemen. The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism, UNVIM, plays a key role in facilitating food deliveries. But constraints on access, particularly at Hudaydah – as you noted, Stephen – contribute to the risk of famine. The closure of Sana’a airport, along with checkpoints on the ground, complicate relief efforts even more. Obstructions to aid in Yemen must be lifted.

The United States also urges international and regional partners to help Yemenis afford to buy food again. Contributing to the cash transfer programs that provide payments to Yemen’s neediest families would help prevent families from going hungry.

Now in South Sudan, the UN has already declared a famine in certain areas. Responsibility for this famine lies squarely with the country’s leaders, who are fighting a senseless conflict as their people starve. This conflict has caused almost 3.5 million people to flee their homes, forcing many to abandon their farms. People are hiding from the violence in swamps; they’re surviving by eating water lilies and grasses; or taking enormous risks by trying to flee to neighboring countries. But even as 100,000 people face starvation now and 5.5 million people face severe hunger this coming summer, South Sudan’s leaders are making it even more difficult to deliver aid. Of course, South Sudan’s leaders have tried to say that they will solve these challenges. But look at what they’re actually doing. There are reports that government officials are expelling humanitarian staff from famine-stricken areas. This is an outrage. The United States calls on the Government of South Sudan to uphold one of their most fundamental obligations to their citizens – that is, to keep them from starving to death – and to allow humanitarian aid organizations to do their jobs in helping people.

Stephen, as you noted, with his visit to Somalia, the Secretary-General brought much-needed attention to Somalia’s worsening hunger crisis. The Somali people, though, continue to grapple with the impact of decades of conflict. We know that in 2011, nearly 260,000 Somalis died in a famine. And now, after several poor rainy seasons, Somalia yet again faces a looming famine, with more than 50 percent of the population in need of assistance. But the difference between then and now is that the international community is mobilized and is in place to provide aid and that a new Federal Government of Somalia is ready to coordinate a drought response. But again, funding, as you note, is the primary obstacle to saving lives. Of the $825 million required for famine prevention and response in Somalia, only 16.2 percent of what is required has been received.

Finally, members of this Council just saw firsthand the suffering in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin where more than 10 million civilians – two out of every three people in the region – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Some organizations already believe that famine occurred in parts of Nigeria last year, and experts warn that up to 120,000 people could face famine by the summer. It’s a daunting challenge, as we saw, to get aid to this area, of course, as the region’s militaries continue to combat Boko Haram’s brutality. In the midst of this fight, humanitarians and civilians are threatened by ambushes, suicide attacks, and improvised explosive devices. But to save people from starving to death, humanitarians need safe ways to reach them, again echoing Under-Secretary-General O’Brien. We saw during our trip that there is scope for greater collaboration between military officials and humanitarian organizations that could allow greater access. These groups are able to deliver aid to 2.1 million people now, which is a massive improvement from where we were last year. But 5.1 million people still need help, the UN and its partners are still not able to reach more than 50 percent of the people going hungry. And that’s why the UN and the governments around the Lake Chad Basin have to do more to open up access in the areas hardest hit by the fight against Boko Haram.

So in closing, the bottom line is that all of us know the steps required to prevent famine. The members of this Council, and all other countries with influence need to press parties on the ground to open up humanitarian access and minimize the impact of hostilities on the population. We also need to give the UN the resources it needs to help. Starvation is preventable. But only if we all have the will to act. Thank you.