Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a UN Security Council High-Level Open Debate on Conflict-Driven Hunger

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
March 11, 2021


Thank you, Secretary-General Guterres, Executive Director Beasley, and Executive Director Bucher for your powerful advocacy to alleviate the scourge of conflict-induced hunger. And I thank you too, many Member States for submitting statements for this open debate, and I welcome ministers and senior representatives from other countries on the Security Council.

I’d like to start with a moment I’ll never forget.

In 1993, I visited a refugee camp in northern Uganda. It was my first-ever visit to a refugee camp. When I arrived, it was overflowing with Sudanese refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan, and I saw a two-year-old. Her rib bones were poking out and she was malnourished, so malnourished that she was unable to eat. And then in an instant she died right in front of me.

That moment, and that little girl, are seared in my memory. I remember her big, gaunt eyes. I remember her mother’s eyes, too, when I saw nothing but darkness and despair.

That day was the first time I truly understood what the words famine and acute malnutrition means.

So, when we use these technical terms – food security, acute malnutrition, conflict-induced hunger – let us not forget what they really mean. We’re talking about raw humanity here. We’re talking about pure suffering. We’re talking about real people. We’re talking about children and mothers, like the ones that I met in 1993 – more than 20 years ago.

And the problem is compounded today. Acute malnutrition can trigger other risks, like gender-based violence or the exploitation and abuse of children. In other words, the cruelty of hunger drives more cruelty.

I wish that day in Uganda was the only time I saw that cruelty, that kind of cruelty up close. But it’s not. The menace of hunger has been a repeated scene throughout my career, and I know many of you have seen it as well.

Thirty years later, I’ve never stopped thinking about what happened that day. How that nameless child’s suffering was, and still is, entirely preventable.

After all, in 2021, there are no reason we can’t get resources to people in acute need. In today’s world, famine is man-made. And I use that gender deliberately. And if it is caused by us, that means it must be stopped by us too.

In 2018, the Security Council took a powerful step toward addressing this inhumanity. We acted together. We spoke with one voice in Resolution 2417, which stated we would investigate bad actors who violate international law and use starvation as a weapon of war and hold them accountable.

Last September, the Council was briefed on the status of conflict-driven hunger. The briefing painted a damning, if incomplete, portrait of the state of conflict-driven hunger around the world. In the six months since that briefing, the outlook for hunger and famine looks even worse, as you’ve heard from all of our speakers today. Why? Today’s conflicts are lasting longer. They are growing more complex. And of course, COVID-19 and climate change have made a bleak situation even more dire.

Here’s what that means for vulnerable people around the globe.

In Yemen, over 70 percent of the country needs food assistance. And over two million children under the age of five are at risk of starvation and acute malnutrition.

And on my first day here at the UN, I spoke to humanitarian organizations on the ground in Yemen. And they shared how the country had been brought to its knees by six years of fighting. How they are desperate for consistent funding and support. And how their rival* efforts have been seriously hindered by the need to cross multiple lines of conflict.

We’re also alarmed by the situation in Ethiopia right now, as you heard from Mr. Beasley. Fighting in the Tigray region over the past four months has driven innocent citizens to the brink. Food stocks are depleted. Acute malnutrition is rising. The ongoing violence has prevented humanitarians from helping a desperately hungry people.

Actors in Ethiopia, including Eritrean forces from across Ethiopia’s borders, have restricted humanitarian access to the rural areas where the most Tigrayans live. We cannot allow this situation to deteriorate farther.

We call on all sides – and I stress, all sides – to stop the fighting and allow this man-made humanitarian situation to be addressed. Also, we need better, earlier, more consistent reporting on these crises. We need to ensure the Secretary-General has the mandate and the tools to bring these emerging conflicts and potential starvation into the spotlight. I commend the Secretary-General’s announcement of the establishment of a high-level task force on preventing famine.

And I would note, that it’s not just Yemen and Ethiopia, as the Secretary-General and others noted.

In Afghanistan, nearly half of the country’s children under five are facing acute starvation**.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, violence has led to displacement, which has led to five million acutely malnourished children. And I want to take this moment to express my condolences over the loss of life, to include the Italian ambassador and WFP staff.

And in the Central African Republic, nearly two million face high levels of acute insecurity. May through August is the lean season when food supplies run out and, in fact, people refer to it as the “hungry season”. If we want to help, now is the time.

And finally, in South Sudan, violence has driven people off of their land, separating innocent civilians from their families. In their search for safety, innocent civilians are hiding in swamps where they barely survive off wild foods and contaminated river water.

And part of what’s so devastating about the crisis in South Sudan is the lack of data and reporting, which leads us to believe the situation is even worse than what we already know. There’s only one reason we’re being prevented from seeing the entire data set: South Sudan’s government doesn’t want us to know.

Which brings me to my last point.

What’s different today from when I visited the refugee camp in Uganda 30 years ago?

Today, we should have better information on where acute hunger is happening and where it will get worse. And we have seen major advances in therapeutic feeding for children suffering from acute malnutrition.

We can save lives, if we know where to go, and if we put the funding toward it. And if we don’t have the data, we can’t deliver that life-saving assistance.

That’s a problem the Security Council can solve today if we choose to. The body has the unique ability to demand and secure timely reporting, data, and action.

So, to that end, we ask Secretary-General Guterres and his team for two formal reports to the Security Council each year, in addition to the current mandate to urgently notify the Council when there is a risk. We have to, we must depoliticize reporting and ensure that we have a regular mechanism for addressing these situations in the Security Council so that no more innocent civilians starve to death.

We also ask the Secretary-General to look specifically at how to enhance data collection and analysis methods. The United States is happy to be a partner in that effort, and we insist that the UN, as a matter of practice, work to analyze and identify who is responsible for hunger.

After all, acute hunger is the callous weapon of warmongers. It is caused by people with names and faces, and the people who suffer at their hands deserve justice.

It is my sincere hope that we can, as the Security Council, speak with one voice on this unifying issue.

There is nothing we will do here that will bring justice to the little girl I met all those years ago, or to her mother, or to the millions of others like them who have suffered needlessly, and continue to suffer needlessly today.

But it is within our power. It is within our power to honor their legacy. We can build a world where no one experiences extreme hunger. And we can start building that world today.

Thank you.