The Human Right to Food, Freedom from Hunger, and SDG 2: Global Food Crisis and Starvation Tactics from the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

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Much has been written and reported in the past 100 days since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, regarding all manner of mass atrocity crimes, continuing egregious human rights violations, war crimes and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and other sources of international humanitarian law.  In February, I wrote about international law duties not to recognize the unabashedly admitted illegal acts of aggression, violation of the use of force, and outright annexation being committed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.  A laudable proposal for an International Claims Commission for Ukraine was also recently discussed here at EJIL:Talk!, along with other parallel international initiatives to ensure accountability for mass human rights violations inflicted during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.  Apart from the glaringly apparent continuing violations of civil and political rights, the Russian invasion of Ukraine imposes devastating consequences for the rest of the international system through impacts on global food shortages, worsening scarcity and starvation, and the exacerbation of food crises around the world. 7 weeks from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, CSIS Global Food Security Director Caitlin Welsh already reported that:

“Food price increases due to the Russia-Ukraine war are jeopardizing food security around the world. According to the FAO, 26 countries rely on Ukraine and Russia for at least 50 percent of their wheat imports. These include countries in Africa’s Sahel region, where 6 million children are malnourished and 16 million people in urban areas are at risk of food insecurity, according to the UN World Food Program (WFP). The WFP also recently noted the vulnerability of countries in East Africa, which also rely on imports from Ukraine and Russia, and are experiencing the effects of conflict and severe drought. UNICEF emphasizes the vulnerability of children in the Middle East and North Africa, where countries import more than 90 percent of food they consume, and the majority of children do not have access to adequate nutrition.

Today’s food price increases are also affecting politics around the world. In Pakistan, food prices had been rising for months prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and even higher food prices were among popular grievances that led to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ousting this week. In Peru, President Pedro Castillo is struggling to quell unrest in response to record-high food and fuel prices; several died in protests last week. Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, procures over 80 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and as its own supplies dwindle, its government is seeking other sources for its supplies. The price of unsubsidized bread jumped 25 percent in some bakeries just weeks into the Russia-Ukraine war. High food and fuel prices are a flashpoint in the presidential election in France; Germany, Italy, and Spain have offered energy allowances, price cuts, and tax cuts to quell the impact of high energy prices.”

In March 2022, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri warned of a looming global famine ensuing from Russian aggression in Ukraine. By May 2022, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guteres likewise sounded the alarm over the looming global food crisis with global food prices at least 30% higher this year on average, citing as one of the dangers of failing to stop Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine the imminent threat of tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine.”  This deepens what is already the worst global food crisis already being experienced with acute critical severity by 193 million persons in 53 countries, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2022 Global Report on Food Crises. The World Bank recently created a comprehensive response to address the global food crisis, but its long-term ability to address a protracted global food crisis remains in question. The International Monetary Fund tracks the rise in food prices all over the world and the corresponding food shortages caused throughout the world as a result of the continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine. In light of the global impacts of Russian actions in Ukraine on food supplies and prices, former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu called for a “minimal” international agreement to address food shortages.

Ukraine is the world’s largest wheat producer. Along with other agricultural goods, around 20 million tonnes of wheat and other grains crops have not been able to leave Ukraine ports due to the Russian invasion.  Russia’s “grain war” is not just provoking a global food crisis, but its absolute control and endangerment of global food supplies, turning global food supplies into a bargaining chip for diplomatic negotiations, is inconsistent with the Russian Federation’s obligations under international human rights law, specifically Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) on the rights to food freedom from hunger, and Article 12 of the same Covenant, on right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  Using starvation as a method of warfare is also prohibited under customary norms of international humanitarian law.  The Russian Federation has been a State Party to the ICESCR since 1973.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now turned into an ongoing direct assault on international human rights all over the world.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine has never been a more direct problem for concerted international action than it is now.  Compliance with the international legal duty of non-recognition of internationally wrongful actions in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only all the more urgent now for any third States that still help to indirectly or directly subsidize the continuing Russian aggression and invasion, but especially more so now that any such subsidies could also be seen as contributing to fueling the global food crisis and starvation tactics that the leadership of the Russian Federation appears to be unleashing on the rest of the world.  

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Articles 11 (right to food and freedom from hunger) and Article 12 (right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health)

It was the Russian Federation’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, that proposed as early as 1949 to formulate a right to food and freedom from hunger (e.g. “It is the duty of the State to guarantee to everyone the right to work and to choose his occupation in such manner as to create conditions which will exclude the threat of death from hunger and from exhaustion”, USSR Submission, E/CN.4/196/Rev.1, 24 May 1949), that ultimately became the final Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The said Article 11 is not of any limited territorial application, specifically since it refers to the rights of “everyone” to food and freedom from hunger:

“Article 11

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.” (Emphasis added.)

General Comment No. 12 (The Right of Adequate Food) issued by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1999 (when the same Committee included among its Members a representative of the Russian Federation, Valerie Kouznetsov), explicitly describes State obligations to populations within their own territory, as well as international obligations owed to other States:

“15. The right to adequate food, like any other human right, imposes three types or levels of obligations on States parties: the obligations to respect, to protect and to fulfil. In turn, the obligation to fulfil incorporates both an obligation to facilitate and an obligation to provide. * The obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires States parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access. The obligation to protect requires measures by the State to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food. The obligation to fulfil (facilitate) means the State must proactively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security. Finally, whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters….

19. Violations of the right to food can occur through the direct action of States or other entities insufficiently regulated by States. These include: the formal repeal or suspension of legislation necessary for the continued enjoyment of the right to food; denial of access to food to particular individuals or groups, whether the discrimination is based on legislation or is proactive; the prevention of access to humanitarian food aid in internal conflicts or other emergency situations; adoption of legislation or policies which are manifestly incompatible with pre-existing legal obligations relating to the right to food; and failure to regulate activities of individuals or groups so as to prevent them from violating the right to food of others, or the failure of a State to take into account its international legal obligations regarding the right to food when entering into agreements with other States or with international organizations. …

36. In the spirit of Article 56 of the Charter of the United Nations, the specific provisions contained in articles 11, 2.1, and 23 of the Covenant and the Rome Declaration of the World Food Summit, States parties should recognize the essential role of international cooperation and comply with their commitment to take joint and separate action to achieve the full realization of the right to adequate food. In implementing this commitment, States parties should take steps to respect the enjoyment of the right to food in other countries, to protect that right, to facilitate access to food and to provide the necessary aid when required. States parties should, in international agreements whenever relevant, ensure that the right to adequate food is given due attention and consider the development of further international legal instruments to that end.

37. States parties should refrain at all times from food embargoes or similar measures which endanger conditions for food production and access to food in other countries. Food should never be used as an instrument of political and economic pressure. In this regard, the Committee recalls its position, stated in its general comment No. 8, on the relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights.” (Emphasis added.)

At the very least, the Russian Federation’s obligations to respect the right to adequate food require the Russian Federation to curtail any of its own actions that could prevent access to such crucial food supplies, especially with around 20 million tonnes of wheat and grains for export stuck at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that are under the full control of the Russian Federation.  The Russian Federation should also refrain from any further actions that endanger food supplies to the population in Ukraine as well as food supplies to the world at large, such as bombing obviously civilian facilities such as grain warehouses, agricultural tractors and other agricultural supply chain facilities; implementing a naval blockade that attacks the global food supply chain; or even making empty diplomatic ‘promises‘ that simply hold global food supplies hostage as a bargaining chip for demanding removal of global economic sanctions imposed as countermeasures to the Russian Federation’s ongoing aggression, invasion, and annexation of Ukraine.  As the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reminded in its General Comment No. 8 (The relationship between sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights), the State on the receiving end of sanctions continues to be bound to ensure respect for economic, social and cultural rights:

“7. The Committee considers that the provisions of the Covenant, virtually all of which are also reflected in a range of other human rights treaties as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cannot be considered to be inoperative, or in any way inapplicable, solely because a decision has been taken that considerations of international peace and security warrant the imposition of sanctions. Just as the international community insists that any targeted State must respect the civil and political rights of its citizens, so too must that State and the international community itself do everything possible to protect at least the core content of the economic, social and cultural rights of the affected peoples of that State (see also General Comment 3 (1990), paragraph 10)…

10. The Committee believes that two sets of obligations flow from these considerations. The first set relates to the affected State. The imposition of sanctions does not in any way nullify or diminish the relevant obligations of that State party. As in other comparable situations, those obligations assume greater practical importance in times of particular hardship. The Committee is thus called upon to scrutinize very carefully the extent to which the State concerned has taken steps “to the maximum of its available resources” to provide the greatest possible protection for the economic, social and cultural rights of each individual living within its jurisdiction. While sanctions will inevitably diminish the capacity of the affected State to fund or support some of the necessary measures, the State remains under an obligation to ensure the absence of discrimination in relation to the enjoyment of these rights, and to take all possible measures, including negotiations with other States and the international community, to reduce to a minimum the negative impact upon the rights of vulnerable groups within the society.

11. The second set of obligations relates to the party or parties responsible for the imposition, maintenance or implementation of the sanctions, whether it be the international community, an international or regional organization, or a State or group of States….” (Emphasis added.)

The impact of the Russian Federation’s aggression in Ukraine on global populations’ human rights to food also extends to the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health under Article 12 of the ICESCR.  The Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights recognized the direct and integral linkage between both the right to health and the right to food and freedom from hunger in its General Comment No. 14 (The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health”): “The right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the realization of other human rights, as contained in the International Bill of Rights, including the rights to food, housing, work, education, human dignity, life, non-discrimination, equality, the prohibition against torture, privacy, access to information, and the freedoms of association, assembly and movement. These and other rights and freedoms address integral components of the right to health.” (CESCR General Comment No. 14, para. 3). The CESCR has even gone as far as indicating that it is a core obligation for States Parties to the ICESCR “to ensure access to the minimum essential food which is nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure freedom from hunger to everyone.” [CESCR General Comment No. 14, para. 43(b)]. Most importantly, the CESCR has emphasized that, pursuant to Article 2(1) of the ICESCR, “it is particularly incumbent on States parties and other actors in a position to assist, to provide ‘international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical’ which enable developing countries to fulfil their core and other obligations [under the ICESCR].” [CESCR General Comment No. 14, para. 44].  At the very minimum, the Russian Federation’s continuing denial of access to global food supplies stands in direct violation of its ICESCR duties to ensure access to the minimum essential food and freedom from hunger to everyone.  Russian aggression, invasion, and annexation of Ukraine is already reported to “exacerbate famine in the Global South“.  The Russian Federation has already been reported to have been actively using starvation tactics against Ukrainian civilians, in direct violation of customary norms of civilian protection during armed conflicts.

Conclusion: The Russian Federation and International Cooperation under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2

In its 2020 Voluntary Review of Progress Made in the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Russian Federation proudly declared that it “places high emphasis on food security in international cooperation. In 2014, it joined the Food Aid Convention aimed at ensuring efficient provision of humanitarian aid to states in need of such aid. In accordance with the Convention, Russia assumed an obligation to provide minimum food aid volumes in financial form and/or in kind via bilateral or multilateral channels for at least USD 15 mln per year. Russia has considerably exceeded that commitment. In the last five years, under WFP alone, Russia provided food aid to 30 countries in different parts of the world for more than USD 220 mln. In addition to provision of urgent food aid in crisis situations, the country actively performs as a development donor, including FAO projects aimed at long-term food security and agricultural development solutions.” (2020 Voluntary Review, p. 43). Nothing in the actions of the Russian Federation in its continuing aggression, invasion, and annexation of Ukraine, including its continued denial of access to crucial global food and fertilizer supplies, lives up to its avowed high emphasis on food security in international cooperation.  Instead, by holding global food supplies hostage and particularly exacerbating famine in the Global South, the Russian Federation is taking its illegal war to the rest of the world and humanity’s most vulnerable.  All States hit by the global food crisis must now act, pursuant to their own domestic and international duties to protect the rights to adequate food, freedom from hunger, and the highest attainable standard of health of their own populations, that are now being directly imperiled by continuing Russian actions in Ukraine.  While they may be third States with duties of non-recognition insofar as Russian actions of aggression, invasion, and annexation of Ukraine are concerned, they are now direct parties absorbing the impacts of global food shortages, global food price inflation, and global food supply chains disrupted and endangered under the Russian Federation’s violations of the ICESCR and related international humanitarian law.

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