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Is Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine responsible for the imminent global food security crisis?

As the Russia–Ukraine conflict enters its second year, it has put a great strain on the global supply of essential food items, such as wheat and sunflower oil. The strain is greater in countries in the Global South, as it may worsen the state of malnutrition in these countries and engender or deepen violent conflicts.

THE devastating implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the environment and global food market (particularly vis-à-vis Third World countries) had been widely documented in the recent past. The aftermath of Russia’s “special military operation” is evident from the fact that even a year after the invasion began, agricultural commodity markets continue to remain highly inflated, although prices have retreated from a record high in 2022. 

Moreover, with two of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and other food crops entering into a second year of conflict, the long-term implications of the invasion on the market could lead the world to a global food security crisis.

This scenario underlines the potentially devastating implications that such an impending global food security and environmental crisis could have on countries which are collectively referred to as the ‘Third World’. 

The poor and destitute countries of the Third World, even though they are not directly involved in the war, have borne the brunt of the expenses and effects, as is typical of global calamities and unrest. Even while ongoing civil wars and other conflicts in Africa have been overshadowed and neglected, the weak states’ energy and food insecurity, the expense of living, and the risk of protests and conflicts have become more severe, further decreasing chances for recovery.

In light of this, we argue that there is a need to establish a legal framework to account for Russia’s extraterritorial responsibility towards the Third World, to assess the violation of its obligation to protect the environment, and its violation of the right to food of the people. 

The energy and food insecurity , the expense of living, and the risk of protests and conflicts in weaker countries have become more severe, further decreasing chances for recovery.

However, such a legal framework must be compatible with Third World approaches to international law (TWAIL)-centric analysis— as any such analysis would remain incomplete by simply focusing on the rights-rhetoric developed by the First World. Instead, we must elucidate upon the political and economic challenges faced by such countries outside the ambit of the rights paradigm, which directly affect the violation of the protection of the environment and right to food of the people in these countries.

Also read: ICC’s arrest warrant against Putin may not be a watershed moment in the Russian invasion of Ukraine

To provide a theoretical background for this analysis, it is pertinent to note that TWAIL experts have been questioning the legitimacy of the international legal order for decades. The movement is not new. We stress that the core of TWAIL is a shared ‘resistance to the unjust global system’. 

As TWAIL believe that force is more effective than law, they also challenge the international legal system and its development. Thus, while some experts, like Bhupinder Singh Chimni, have warned of the imminence of an “Imperial Global State” due to the transfer of sovereignty from developing nations to international institutions controlled by a transnational capitalist class, others have preferred to talk about a hegemonic legal order, international law ultimately remains a tool to pursue the interests of former colonial powers.

This piece intends to provide a tool of resistance to the First World narratives of international law, by focusing on the political and economic challenges faced by such countries outside the ambit of the rights paradigm. 

In a nutshell, this article seeks to question the mainstream human rights convention, which tends to overemphasise the significance of rights rhetoric in attempts to alleviate hunger and malnutrition, particularly in the Third World. This article shall demonstrate that in order for the mainstream rights discourse and international humanitarian law obligations to be an effective weapon, they ought to be linked with TWAIL.

What is Russia’s position as per the principles of international human rights law and international humanitarian law?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has failed to take into account any international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) obligations and has, in turn, engaged in a ‘senseless destruction’ of Ukraine’s environment and its food systems, greatly impacting its export and agriculture industry.

This is evident from its deliberate attacks upon Ukraine’s agricultural land during the armed conflict, with over 200,000 hectares of territory being decimated with mines, shells and debris. Such attacks have resulted in significant degradation of the agricultural land in the region and bear potentially severe long-term consequences. 

The ongoing conflict has already rendered farmers in Ukraine unable to harvest this year’s crop due to the environmental damage caused by the conflict.

Moreover, Russia has failed to pay any regard to the potential environmental ‘costs’ arising out of the conflict, prior to the invasion as well. This can be seen through its indiscriminate destruction of multiple industrial facilities, pumping stations, and agro-industrial storage plants, without any distinction being made between the same, and the combat areas. 

Before examining the responsibility owed to the Third World, it is necessary to identify a relevant standard to assess the damage to the environment and food security caused by the conflict, which directly threatens the right to food of the people of the Third World.

In terms of IHL obligations, the Additional Protocol I (‘AP I’) to the Geneva Convention, 1977 becomes relevant. The AP I mandates three conditions that must be satisfied during an armed conflict to trigger protection from environmental damage. These include ‘long-term’, ‘severe’, and ‘widespread damage’ to the natural environment by chosen means of warfare. However, these conditions impose a very high threshold to establish environmental damage, as they only envisage damage to the health of the population, economic assets, and the ecosystem, for a period of more than 10 years. Such an onerous standard provides powerful states an opportunity to protect themselves, thereby  fuelling  criticism in the Third World to the effect that international law has failed to check violations of international obligations owed by powerful states. 

As a suggestion, the Draft Principles on the Protection in Armed Conflict (DPPAC) adopted by the International Law Commission would be a more suitable framework to trigger environmental protection under the TWAIL. This is because DPPAC extends the obligation to protect the environment to all three stages of the armed conflict— before, during and after. 

In essence, DPPAC promotes greater accountability of the more powerful nations during an armed conflict, by casting a much wider ambit of protection than the AP I, which only applies during the armed conflict. Therefore, by taking into account the repercussions of an armed conflict both before and after the armed conflict, it brings the environmental law standard a step closer to the genuine expectations of the Third World. 

Russia has failed to fulfill its obligation to protect the environment both before and during the armed conflict, and hence, has clearly violated the standards under the DPPAC. 

Also read: International Law violations by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine

Turning to IHRL obligations, Article 55 of the United Nations Charter outlines the three basic goals of the United Nations, its members and its organs: (1) peace and security; (2) progressive development; and (3) human rights. It has supplied an early inventory of principles to explain the meaning of this provision. In doing so, conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child become relevant. 

Approximately 6 million children in the Sahel region of Africa continue to be malnourished, with 16 million people in the urban areas at the brink of food insecurity.

The relevance of the convention is strengthened by the fact that all but one member had ratified it, which was passed through the General Assembly Resolution 44/25. The convention guarantees children the right to adequate nourishment and nutrition.

Furthermore, protracted crises (such as this one) “may also have international, regional, and transboundary aspects and impacts, including the presence of refugees as defined and recognised under applicable international law,” according to the UN Committee on World Food Security’s Framework for Action for Food Security and Nutrition in Protracted Crises (FFA). 

It is noted that the FFA “shall be read and implemented in line with national legal systems and institutions, and duties under international law,” indicating that human rights and international humanitarian law are among its fundamental principles.

How does Russia have an extraterritorial obligation towards the Third World? 

Upon establishing the environmental and food security damage caused by the invasion and Russia’s failure to fulfill its obligations, it is necessary to examine whether this obligation extends to other countries that are not directly involved in the conflict (here, the Third World). This is to facilitate a more rigorous enforcement of the standard and examine the implications of these violations upon the right to food of the people of the Third World. To facilitate better enforcement of this standard, it is necessary to examine the extraterritorial responsibility owed by Russia to the Third World. 

To demonstrate this, we argue in the next subsection that such a responsibility is in fact owed to the Third World and its people, especially when such environmental damage directly threatens the right to food of the people, violating their rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). To examine this extraterritorial responsibility, the following international statutes and conventions would be applicable.

Article(s) 1 and 11 of the ICESCR envisages the ‘essential importance’ of international cooperation across state borders for the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living for the people. While there are no specific provisions for extraterritorial implementation of the responsibilities, a transnational impact is clearly achievable, particularly in the case of the right to food, given the covenant’s emphasis on transnational cooperation (refer to General Comment No. 12, para 36, 37).

In addition to this, according to the Principles II–IV of the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Duties of States in the Field of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ETO Principles), the territory is extended to places outside the state’s territory if the ICESCR rights can be influenced outside the state’s borders. 

This is justified by the fact that economic, social and cultural rights possess precisely this capacity for influence. As the emphasis on international collaboration indicates, these depend on the participation of many member states. On the premise of extant international law, the Maastricht Principles elucidate the extraterritorial obligations of states. 

The principles are expert opinions regarding the status of extraterritorial human rights obligations in international law; they are not legally obligatory. Notwithstanding, the Maastricht Principles were explicitly derived from international law in order to give effect to the purpose of the United Nations Charter and international human rights. Principle 8b of the Maastricht Principles identifies the United Nations Charter as the source of obligation, which serves as the starting point for assessing the legal nature of ETOs.

Also read: As ICJ orders Russia to suspend its military operations in Ukraine, it may well have opened a window for peace

Moreover, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution adopted on 18th December, 2014 on the Right to Food (without a vote) further emphasises the extraterritorial commitment to respect and protect and urges that all states guarantee that their political and economic actions do not impede the enjoyment of ICESCR rights in other states. The resolution emphasises the extraterritorial applicability of the ICESCR rights and is based on the need for friendly relations and international cooperation between all member states (which has been discussed in Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter). Finally, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the UN Committee on World Food Security has been actively publishing reports and studies (refer here) on the plight of Third World countries due to the lack of food supplies and resources.

Russia has failed to fulfill its obligation to protect the environment both before and during the armed conflict, and hence, has clearly violated the standard under the DPPAC.

Thus, in order to preserve its responsibility to respect the right to food, Russia ought to have considered the effects of its actions on the global population (especially towards the Third World). This evaluation should have determined that their actions would have catastrophic effects on international food security. Yet, the attacks were carried out, violating the universal extraterritorial commitment to respect (especially in the Third World).

While it is recognised that the extraterritorial commitment to fulfill is not as extensive as that of the nation-states themselves and that Russia is not directly obliged to provide help to foreign citizens, indirect assistance is still required for the countries that have been affected. 

Since Russia’s actions caused serious food shortages, they ought to have provided financial assistance to the afflicted states when it became onerous for the home States to do so. Russia has not, however, fulfilled its commitment.

In this way, from the existing international legal framework, arguments for extraterritorial responsibility can be placed on Russia vis-a-vis the Third World. However, there is less likelihood that Russia can be held accountable for its actions at all— and a major reason for this can be traced back to the fundamental flaws of international law and its lackadaisical implementation against the interests of powerful states. 

In any case, the authors argue that it is necessary to establish this extraterritorial responsibility from a TWAIL perspective, especially in circumstances when armed conflicts such as the present conflict, directly impinge upon the right to food of the people in Third World countries.

Implications of the Russia–Ukraine conflict on the right to food of the people of the Third World

Upon establishing the extraterritorial responsibility owed by Russia to Third World countries due to its violation of the obligation to protect the environment, it is necessary to examine the effect of the conflict upon the right to food of the people, arising out of Article 1 and 11 of the ICESCR. 

This impact can be gauged by assessing the effect of the conflict on the global wheat supply chains that are dependent on Russia and Ukraine. The ongoing conflict has already rendered farmers unable to harvest this year’s crop due to the environmental damage caused by the conflict, thereby resulting in the global wheat and sunflower seed oil prices rising to unprecedented levels.

This is accompanied by the direct destruction of crops, agricultural land and vital infrastructure, which has an immediate impact on the people’s access to the food supply from these regions. As a result, there is an impending food security crisis in the North African and Middle Eastern countries that are heavily reliant on these imports. 

The effect of such a food crisis could be significantly worsened in these countries because of the history of country-specific shocks, stockpiling-related shortages, export restrictions, and climate change implications, further aggravating the access to food of people belonging to these regions.

To illustrate, more than 90 percent of the food consumption in the Middle East and North Africa is constituted of imports. Moreover, as per data released by the UN World Food Programme, approximately 6 million children in the Sahel region of Africa continue to be malnourished, with 16 million people in the urban areas at the brink of food insecurity.

The conflict has increased the likelihood of food insecurity in Russia itself, and could lead to a worldwide increase in malnutrition and famine (this gives the Third World a larger reason to worry). This is particularly because as per data released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 26 nations depend upon wheat imported from Russia and Ukraine for 50 percent of their needs. 

African countries are heavily reliant upon Russia and Ukraine for the import of crucial crops such as wheat, corn and sunflower seed oil, with Middle East and North African countries alone consuming 80 percent of the wheat exports of Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine and Russia provide as much as 90 per cent of India’s yearly need for crude sunflower oil.

To make matters worse, such a food security crisis would further aggravate the inequalities within these countries. As the fertiliser company Yara International has warned, the Russia–Ukraine conflict would only result in the privileged people having access to sufficient food, leading to starvation and violence in vulnerable countries. 

Through this, access to food would become exclusive to the First World citizens in the Third World (as referred to by Prof. Upendra Baxi) thereby exacerbating the differences and inequalities between the two groups of citizens. 

There would be a disproportionate impact of the conflict on the right to food of the people within these Third World countries as well, by essentially creating two classes of people, based on their ability to satisfy their basic needs, which is in turn, driven by socio-political and economic conditions prevailing in these countries.

Such an effect also ties in with certain aspects of the four forms of violence emphasised by the UN Special Rapporteur Report on ‘conflict and the right to food’. The report highlights the effect of armed conflict on ‘discrimination and inequality’, ‘bodily harm’, ‘ecological violence’, and ‘erasure’.

A denial of access to food and related resources, which is contingent upon the import from the countries involved in the conflict, further aggravates the poverty and social exclusion faced by the people. This perpetuates the ‘inequality’ faced by the people, who are already pushed to the peripheral rungs of these societies. This could also lead to the gradual ‘invisibilisation’ of such people through a violation of their food sovereignty, thereby leading to the ‘erasure’ of such people. This ties to another form of violence identified by this report, thereby indicating a great cause for concern for the people of the Third World.

In conclusion, it is imperative to understand that the environmental damage caused by the Russia–Ukraine conflict has a much wider impact as it directly impacts the food chain of the Third World and its population. By pushing the Third World closer to a food security crisis, the conflict emerges as yet another example of a state displaying its dominance in the international sphere, at the expense of the Third World— a demonstration of neo-colonialism in a post-colonial world. Hence, a legal analysis using a TWAIL analytical framework such as the one proposed here becomes imperative in the present context.

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