The United States and 90 other countries took a formal stand against weaponizing food in conflicts last week, while more than half — 102 United Nations member states — declined to sign the communiqué pledging to condemn the use of food as a tool of war. Only 11 of Africa’s 54 countries agreed to the messaging.
The communiqué was part of the US agenda highlighting the issue of famine and food insecurity — which some experts say is a euphemism for starvation — as it leads the Security Council as rotating president in August. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, chaired the country’s first signature event of the month, on Aug. 3, addressing hunger and famine as consequences of war.
“Hunger and conflict are inexorably linked,” Blinken said to the 15-member Council. “Scarce resources heighten tensions between communities and nations. Warring parties weaponize food to subjugate local populations. Indeed, conflict is the largest driver of food insecurity, with violence and unrest pushing 117 million people into extreme deprivation last year.”
Blinken called on all UN members, 193 countries, to specifically call out Moscow for allegedly using food as a weapon of war in its full-scale attacks against Ukraine since February 2022. Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal on July 17, 2023, thereby halting progress in lowering the prices of grains globally. The deal, brokered by the UN and Türkiye and signed by Ukraine and Russia a year ago, created a safe corridor in the heavily mined areas of the Black Sea for the total export of 32 million metric tons of essential foodstuffs in the last year. Grain prices have risen by more than eight percent worldwide since the deal ended abruptly, Blinken said.
The UN said that the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity reached a quarter of a billion last year, the highest recorded in recent years. Of these people, some 376,000 were facing famine-like conditions in seven countries. Another 35 million people were on the edge.
Grain exports from Ukraine, a long-time breadbasket for the world, continue through overland routes and the Danube River, but to a much-lesser extent than Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and Russia attacked Danube terminals last week. Ukraine’s main hub of Odesa is completely shut because of a barrage of missile assaults launched by Russia immediately after it terminated the grain deal. (Ukraine signed the US-written communiqué of Aug. 3.)
Forty-three African countries, many of whom are severely affected by the effects of the war in Ukraine because they are major importers of food, shunned the communiqué. Although Kenya’s Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Korir Sing’Oei, condemned Russia’s decision to pull out of the Black Sea grain deal, the East African country did not sign the pledge.
“The decision by Russia to exit the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a stab in the back at global food security prices and disproportionately impacts countries in the Horn of Africa already impacted by drought,” Sing’Oei tweeted on July 17.
Only Djibouti, among the eight countries in the Horn of Africa, where hunger is a serious problem, signed the communiqué. In the Security Council, 10 members agreed to it, while five — Brazil, China, Gabon, Mozambique and Russia — did not. Yet these countries did not block the statement, which was agreed by consensus. African countries spend more than $75 billion to import over 100 million metric tons of cereals annually, according to the African Development Bank. (China and Russia, along with the US, Britain and France, are permanent members of the Council.)
The continent also relies on imported fertilizer and ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizers, to increase its farm yields, which has become difficult since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago. The Black Sea grain initiative eased some shortages, but with the deal collapsed, many African countries risk heightened food scarcity and rising costs.
After a long speech in the Aug. 3 Council meeting in which he faulted the West for an array of global food crises, Russia’s deputy permanent representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, conceded that “despite the fact that this document [the communiqué] did not include all the provisions we proposed, we considered it possible to support it in a spirit of compromise.”
In a press briefing held by the State Department on Aug. 4, Cary Fowler, its global food security expert, said one effect “on the degrading of Ukrainian agriculture and export by Russia” is “that among the top 15 importers of Ukrainian grain are a number of developing countries with quite high percentages of childhood stunting.” He listed figures: Egypt, 22 percent; Bangladesh, 28 percent; India, 36 percent; Libya, 38 percent; Kenya, 18 percent; and Indonesia, 31 percent. (Of these countries, only Bangladesh and Libya signed the communiqué.)
“Obviously, taking grain out of the international markets and reducing grain going to any of those countries that are already suffering from high incidence of childhood malnutrition and childhood stunting is not a good thing,” Fowler added.
Despite the obvious impact of the war in Africa, Jeffrey Laurenti, an American foreign affairs analyst and UN expert, said that Africa and many of the countries in Latin America and South Asia still don’t want to be caught in the middle of a fight among world powers or to be used to score political points.
“For countries that are not immediately involved in this conflict, you will find political leaders saying they voted to condemn the invasion, but they don’t want to be caught between these powers all the time,” Laurenti said. “Just stay out of the way when the elephants are fighting because it is the grass that gets trampled upon. That’s a notion that explains a number of governments’ preference not to get too much on one side or the other.”
All Western European countries signed on to the communiqué.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.