September 06, 2017

Keynote Address: Four Famines: Fragility, Resilience, and the Role of International Development

Center for Strategic and International Studies

*Remarks as prepared for delivery*


Worse Humanitarian Crisis since WWII

“Today, the world confronts the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. In North-East Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, we confront humanitarian crises of breathtaking scope and severity.  In those four countries, as World Food Programme Executive Director Beasley testified in July, about 20 million people are at risk of severe hunger or starvation.

“In Yemen alone, an estimated 17 million people are food insecure and almost 10 million people are in acute need of humanitarian assistance.  

“To put that number in perspective, 17 million is almost three times the population of Indiana. 

“That is 17 million men, women, and children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. 

“Exacerbated by malnutrition, Yemen also continues to suffer from the world’s worst cholera epidemic, with more than 600,000 infected and more than 2,000 deaths.

“What makes the humanitarian crises in Yemen and the three other countries so heartbreaking is the fact that, to varying degrees, the humanitarian crises are man-made and preventable—exacerbated by armed conflict and deliberate restrictions on humanitarian access.

“We have seen attacks on humanitarian personnel, an insufficient global response to the funding needs, and many man-made impediments to the delivery of humanitarian assistance.   

“Take the actions of the Saudis in Yemen for example. 

“In addition to impeding the flow of humanitarian assistance into Red Sea ports, the Saudi-led coalition deliberately and precisely bombed cranes in the port of Hodeidah that were critical to the delivery of humanitarian supplies, bombed a World Food Programme warehouse, and has—since January—prevented the delivery of replacement cranes. 

“The Saudi-led coalition has also placed limitations on journalists entering Yemen, making it more difficult for the media to portray the dire and urgent conditions there. 


Why the International Community Should Help

“When confronted with suffering on such a scale, it is perhaps tempting for some to feel overwhelmed and to allow that feeling to devolve into a sense of resignation and apathy. 

“While I don’t think those of you in this room are likely to fall prey to that tendency, allow me to explain why I believe such a response would be a mistake for the United States and our international partners. 

“First, I believe the international community has a moral imperative to do all we can to help.   We have been blessed with much, and America is at our best when we lead by example and assemble international coalitions to do good.  

“In addition to this moral imperative, I believe we also have a national security interest to do all we can to help.   

“Once again, consider Yemen.

“This crisis in Yemen is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, but it is also an increasing national security threat.  Most Yemenis do not want to be puppets of Iran and do not want to join terrorist organizations.  Yet, there are concerns that Yemenis at risk of starvation may be willing to do what is necessary to feed their children—including turning to Iran or joining terrorist groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or ISIS.  This dynamic risks increasing the threat to Americans and our allies and heightening further the sectarian nature of the war—making the conflict more intractable and peace more elusive.

“As David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), testified this summer,“Whether you're dealing with extremist groups or terrorist groups, when mothers and fathers and families can't feed their children in these extremist areas and they don't have the access or the opportunity to leave, then they have no choice but to turn to what's available to them.  And so when the United States provides the leadership to make certain that these families, mothers and fathers can feed their children, they do not turn to extremism, the do not turn and yield to terrorism.”


Some of My Activities

I have tried to use my position in the Senate and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to fulfill this moral imperative to help the suffering and vulnerable and to protect our national security interests.

“Working with many partners, some of whom are represented in the room, I have used bipartisan letters, meetings, legislation, and a hearing to raise the visibility of these crises and call for urgent action. 

 “While the challenges are daunting and progress has been slow, I am pleased that on August 9, the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously passed a statement on the humanitarian crises calling on all parties to respect international humanitarian law and permit unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to all areas. 

“That unanimous vote was a significant and positive step, but given the severity and urgency of the humanitarian crises, this statement is obviously not enough.  We must see tangible steps by all parties to put its words into action.  


Priorities Going Forward

“Going forward, in the short-term, I believe we must focus on three things:  funding, access, and resolution of conflicts.  

“Responses to the humanitarian crises remain unacceptably underfunded.  For example, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan for 2017 is only 44% funded. We see similar shortfalls elsewhere.

“While I am proud of the role the American people and Congress have played in helping to fund the humanitarian responses, some of our partners can and should do more. 

“Second, humanitarian access remains a leading challenge.  The international community must speak with one clear and unambiguous voice: Combatants must end attacks on humanitarian personnel and facilities, and countries should stop using food and medicine as weapons of war to gain political advantage or leverage.

“Deliberately attacking humanitarian personnel and facilities and impeding humanitarian relief to areas not under a combatant’s control are clear violations of customary international humanitarian law, and they must stop.  

“When countries or combatants fail to respect these clear humanitarian standards, I believe the U.S. government should lead an international effort to hold offenders accountable. 

“In that spirit, I was especially pleased to see Administrator Mark Green’s pointed comments during his recent trip to South Sudan and following his meeting with President (Salva) Kiir. 

“Finally, as I said, each of the four famines are man-made and preventable and driven largely by conflict.  We must address the conflicts in each of these countries that have caused or exacerbated these humanitarian crises.  I realize that is easier said than done and will require persistent and comprehensive diplomatic efforts at the UN, here in DC, and in capitals around the world. 

“Successfully advancing each of these three priorities, will require U.S. international engagement and leadership, as well as an empowered and well-resourced Department of State. 



 “So, in conclusion, I want to thank CSIS and you, Kimberly, again for allowing me to participate in today’s event. 

“I also want to thank each of you who took the time to come today and join us via webcast.  I know many of you have dedicated years to addressing the kind of humanitarian crises we discussed today. 

“These humanitarian challenges are enormous and the suffering is great.

“But I am confident that—working together—we can continue to do good and make a positive difference. 

“Thank you.”