The international system for declaring a famine is broken, the former humanitarian chief of the United Nations has warned, implying that the alert system is being manipulated by governments trying to hide their abuses.
Mark Lowcock, who was the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs until last year, said that Ethiopia had managed to block a declaration of famine in the Tigray region in 2021.
Ethiopian government forces and allied Eritrean soldiers have been accused of systematically blocking food and medical aid to the region in an attempt to starve the Tigrayan rebels into submission.
Despite the estimates of hundreds of thousands facing starvation, Mr Lowcock says the Ethiopian government managed to stop any formal declaration of a famine through heavy lobbying.
“At the end of my time in the UN, it was clear to me that there was famine in Tigray, and the only reason it wasn’t declared was because the Ethiopian authorities were quite effective in slowing down the whole declaration system,” he said at an online event on Tuesday.
“You have to fight your way through the [IPC’s] Famine Review Committee, and you can be blocked by the authorities of the country that you’re engaging with. And that’s what’s happened in Tigray,” he said, according to the outlet Devex. “The current system is not functional.”
The lack of a formal declaration forced humanitarians to use euphemistic phrases like “famine-like conditions”, which in turn dulled the international outcry to the humanitarian crisis.
At the end of his term at the UN, Mr Lowcock broke ranks and told the Telegraph that starvation was being “used as a weapon of war” in the conflict.
“People need to wake up,” he said in early June 2021. “There is now a risk of a loss of life running into the hundreds of thousands or worse.”
While there is currently a fragile and patchy ceasefire between the Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian government, the humanitarian situation is still dire.
About half a million children are estimated to not have enough food in the region including more than 100,000 who are severely malnourished.
The UN estimates that carrying food and essential supplies need to arrive in the region every day to meet current needs but only a fraction of that is making it through.
The Ethiopian government has consistently denied claims that it is blocking aid. Instead, it blames Tigrayan forces for the humanitarian crisis.
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