News & Events

Deputy Director of the World Food Programme, Brian Lander: on the re-emergence of famines and the role the law can play in humanitarian response

The Deputy Director Of The World Food Programme, Brian Lander, Speaks With Global Rights Compliance’s Catriona Murdoch about the re-emergence of famines and the role the law can play in humanitarian response

13 December 2018


Q1. How long have you been with The World Food Programme and what attracted you to them?

A: I’ve been with World Food Programme (‘WFP’) since the end of 2009. I was in Rome initially then I came to Geneva. WFP is a humanitarian organisation and that’s certainly one of the underlying factors that draws me to the work. I was with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (‘UNHCR’) prior to WFP for about 20 years. I knew WFP in the field and what they were doing, so I guess what attracted me in comparison to my work previously is the real hands-on focus of WFP. If there is any organisation in the UN system that really gets things done on the ground its WFP. That’s linked to a very clear mandate and purpose and the real tangibility of food. This is something that people need on a daily basis and you have to have the infrastructure to deliver it to these populations. It’s that immediateness of the work of WFP that attracted me the most. How that has that direct impact on people’s lives. Not to say that UNHCR and other organisations don’t have that ability, but here it’s just much more stark. You do feel that what you do on a daily basis does make a difference, it is an organisation that gets things done. 


Q2: Can you give a snapshot of your day-to-day at The World Food Programme?

A: I am based in the Geneva office which is considered part of our headquarters. Geneva is considered the humanitarian capital of the UN and perhaps the world. We’re the face of WFP in Geneva on humanitarian issues, at the Human Rights Council, International Committee of Red Cross and other organisations’ annual events or member state briefings on country specific situations. 

We are putting WFP on the map in Geneva. And that’s amongst other organisations that have a stronger presence here like UNHCR, World Health Organisation, UNICEF. We are trying to be the voice of WFP in a big room, being the eyes and ears of the organisation and picking up on what’s happening in respect to Member States’ focus on conflicts and crises today. 


Q3. Please explain the mandate of The World Food Programme and how, if at all, it has changed since 2017 with the rise of food insecurity and the declaration of famine in South Sudan. 

A: The mandate of WFP is primarily to address food insecurity around the world, which is tied to the sustainable development Goal of Zero hunger.  Given our strategic plan and orientation our mandate is about responding directly and/or supporting governments to end food insecurity. About 90% of what we do is in emergency situations. However, our dual mandate also focuses on the development side, looking at resilience and sustainability of food systems, in particular around school meals and nutritional support. 

Moving to the famines that were declared in 2017, these were a real wake-up call to the international community. We certainty saw it coming and it’s not a good reflection on the work around food security, in fact it’s a complete failure. Famine should not happen. It caused a reaction, a heightened attention on what happened to allow these situations to evolve. 

“Suddenly the ‘F-word’, famine, that we hope to never need to use became present in so many places that you couldn’t deny it.” 

WPF’s response to the famine was fairly unprecedented, we scaled up in Northern Nigeria and South Sudan, ensuring that the amount of resources generated a continuous pipeline of food and assistance to the communities affected. This response was the only thing that led to these pockets of famine being properly addressed, avoiding the scale of starvation the like of which we saw in Somalia previously. 

There was a renewed focus on making sure that we had the necessary resources to respond to the scale of need. What didn’t happen was to address the political failings beyond the famines. We had a humanitarian response, but nothing more, and that remains. As long as that remains there is still a need for organisations like WFP to respond. That realization of the politics linked to impact is much more prominent on the international stage now. Which we will discuss shortly in relation to UNSC 2417 (‘S/RES/2417 ‘UNSC 2417’. Four famines in 2017 was an extraordinary occurrence in the modern age.  


Q4. You were on a panel with our managing partner Wayne Jordash QC during The 39th Session of the UN Human Rights Council HRC in Geneva. During the side-event you mentioned that there were some “silver linings” to the current state of food security – could you explain them?

A: In that panel discussion I referred to the sudden realization that things had gone terribly wrong and that people were dying needlessly. I don’t think there is any question that famine is completely avoidable, yet here you had a situation where four were occurring simultaneously. This sparked the discussion that started in New York around UNSC 2417. Had we not had the situation with those four famines, there wouldn’t have been the sort of attention and urgency given to the issue, and I really doubt that we would have ended up with UNSC 2417. So that’s the silver lining that I was talking about. Hopefully we’ve learned and have now put in place a mechanism, that at least on paper, looks like it is a way to respond much more strongly.


Q5. Why is compliance with legal frameworks associated to food and humanitarian access so critical to The World Food Programme’s work

A: When you consider the legal framework and in particular International Humanitarian Law (‘IHL’) and Human Rights, we see it as underpinning everything we do. Those legal frameworks it gives us the authority, or at least the ability and capacity, to do what we do in a principled way. 

When we look at actors on the ground particularly states and non-state actors, their obligations under International Law are critical, these are what provide the backbone of how we interact with states and non-state actors. In any given conflict situation, putting the Geneva Conventions in front of a military commander will not go very far, but the knowledge that the Geneva Conventions are behind you is critical. It enables us to be seen in a light that’s impartial and neutral, and more importantly shows our focus on protecting civilians. 

The moment there is any ambiguity, a questioning of any principles or legal basis of what we are doing, the ability to deliver upon your mandate becomes compromised. 

“I think the Swiss initiative to amend the Rome Statute is critical in the sense that it takes away that ambiguity.”

Where it gets difficult is when you try to point to consequences of potentially unlawful actions and you’re faced with the fact that no one has been prosecuted for starvation. Whilst they have been prosecuted for a multitude of other crimes related to our work, such as denying access or targeting civilian populations, as you try to negotiate a check point or a roadblock it’s difficult to use a legal argument when you don’t have any examples of what that might mean. 

We don’t have those examples in relation to starvation. We have the tribunals that look at all sorts of terrible crimes against humanity and war crimes, but when it comes to starvation there is very little you can point to in terms of case law. 


Q6. What would your reaction be to the more pessimistic view that legal frameworks, amendments to existing legislation and institutions such as the International Criminal Court, do not make any difference to the conduct of warring parties on the ground. Do they offer any positive leverage to your work at The World Food Programme?

A: My view is that they do offer a positive leverage, otherwise in the absence of those institutions and legal frameworks, there is no need to change behaviour. This is what it comes down to in a lot of cases, the need to change the behaviour of the armed actor that you’re dealing with or the government denying you access. You need to be able to lay out those reasons in various different ways and this is one way of doing that until you can change that behaviour. We need a toolbox or a range of ways to show that there is a reason to comply with these frameworks. Until you’re able to change that behaviour then you will continue to have situations where food and other objects indispensable to survival are misused or weaponised. 

Those states or non-state actors you are negotiating with have to see that there is a benefit to them in changing, or at least in instigating a different perspective on the issue, and if they don’t see a benefit to them, you’re lost. No one wants to go to prison and end up in the Hague to be tried by the International Criminal Court. It’s those sorts of things that have to be in the background, as worries in the backs of their minds. 


Q7. How is The World Food Programme responding to the current food crisis in Yemen?

A: The broad numbers are that 20 out of 28 million people are food insecure in Yemen, there are various ranges within that insecurity, but the fact of the matter is the majority of the population really doesn’t know where its next meal is coming from. To speak about it as a country and a population that big I don’t think we’ve seen that before. From the most recent IPC findings released on Friday 7 December 2018, they declared 45 districts which includes about 238,000 people in IPC 5, which means that they are in the famine situation. If we don’t continue to provide them with assistance they will die. That’s the stark reality of it. 

In addition to that, 9.8 million people in another 150 districts are in IPC 4, they’re close and equally at huge risk of falling off the cliff so to speak. Previously WFP have been feeding around 8 million people, with these new findings we will have to scale up to about 12 million if we can. 

The problem with Yemen is that prior to the war, it was entirely dependent on external resources, everything was brought into the country. The moment the ports are blocked through blockade or attacks you throw people into a catastrophic situation and that is what we are dealing with presently. WFP are currently trying to move aid around the country and to inject cash, to hopefully bring the markets back up to a more stable position. 


Q8. What is the relevance of UNSC 2417 for The World Food Programme?

A: UNSC 2417 was a real turning point; we haven’t fully understood the implications of it and I think we need to put a lot more thought into what it means to implement the resolution and make sure it has an impact on people’s lives. It cannot simply be a tool for the UNSC or Members States in New York, it has to have an impact on the ground. 

“UNSC 2417 has become a piece of the international architecture and the recognition that hunger in conflict is a threat to international peace is really significant.”

This recognition is novel and WFP has a part to play in furthering the discussion on conflict and hunger. 

Related News