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Afghanistan: The Right to Food in Conflict

The Right to Food: The Case of Afghanistan

The human right to food1 is recognized and protected in a wide range of both declaratory and legally binding international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,2 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,3 the Convention on the Rights of the Child4 and the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition.5 As a result, all States are obliged to progressively implement the right to food and provide guarantees against hunger and starvation, even in times of emergency,6 by ensuring the accessibility and “availability of food in quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances and acceptable within a given culture.”7

This legal obligation carries several duties.8 The most basic and unequivocal duty, the duty to respect, requires States to refrain from any action that interferes with people's access to food – in other words, to ensure that their own policies and practices do not cause or contribute to starvation.9

Furthermore, egregious violations of the right to food – as are occurring today in Afghanistan – inevitably result in violations of the right to life, the most fundamental of human rights.10 The Human Rights Committee of the UN has established that:

The expression ‘inherent right to life’ cannot properly be understood in a restrictive manner, and the protection of this right requires that States… take all possible measures to reduce infant mortality and to increase life expectancy, especially in adopting measures to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics.11

The Northern Alliance, which under the nominal leadership of President Rabbani still represents Afghanistan at the UN, has clear obligations to respect the right to food in all territory over which it exercises effective control.12 The Taliban, as a de facto government, has similar obligations in any territory remaining under its control.13 At minimum, actions by either party that cause hunger or starvation, for example by interfering with the distribution of food aid, violate the duty to respect the right to food. In addition, the US bears legal responsibility for violations resulting from both its direct control over Afghan airspace and parts of the country, and its decisive military and political support for the Northern Alliance.

Right of Humanitarian Access

Humanitarian law codified in the Geneva Conventions14 and their Protocols15 provides additional protections to the right to food for a population caught in the midst of war. Such protections – and the corresponding legal obligations of States and warring parties – cover both the right of affected civilians to receive aid and the right of humanitarian agencies to deliver it.16

Warring parties have an affirmative “duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population” and also allowing humanitarian aid organizations to pursue their activities “in accordance with Red Cross principles.”17 The founding Red Cross principle is that all aid must be delivered in an impartial and neutral manner exclusively for humanitarian purposes.18 Speaking directly to the conflict in Afghanistan, the ICRC has publicly affirmed that:

The warring parties have the duty to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population in the territory under their control are met as far as possible and to allow the passage of essential relief supplies intended for civilians. They must authorize and facilitate impartial humanitarian relief operations and ensure the safety of medical and humanitarian personnel.19

The Fourth Geneva Convention also requires a State to allow aid agencies to transport foodstuffs and other essentials to the civilians of a State even if it is in conflict with that State.20 In fact, Protocol I specifically obligates all parties to an international armed conflict to facilitate independent humanitarian operations.21

The obligation to ensure access to humanitarian aid for both the Afghan population and the agencies seeking to deliver such aid is therefore incumbent upon not only the Northern Alliance, the Taliban and other armed groups exercising control, but also the US and its allies in neighboring countries, which have sealed their borders, blocked the movement of people fleeing war and hunger, and impeded relief organizations seeking access to them.

Right of Humanitarian Independence

The well-established legal basis for humanitarian operations is complete independence from all parties to a conflict. The UN General Assembly has stated: “Humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.”22 To ensure effective relief action, the ICRC calls upon States:

To recognize the need for the [Red Cross] Movement to maintain a clear separation between its humanitarian action, on the one hand, and actions of a political, military or economic nature carried out by governments, intergovernmental bodies and other agencies during humanitarian crises, on the other hand, bearing in mind the need for the Movement to maintain, in its humanitarian work, its independence, impartiality and neutrality.23

Acknowledging that even a perception of bias endangers the safety of aid personnel and compromises their effectiveness, the ICRC rejects any direct involvement of military forces in relief operations, even armed escorts.24 Indeed, the seminal principle of humanitarian relief is that:

Military operations should be clearly distinct from humanitarian activities. Particularly at the height of hostilities, military forces should not be directly involved in humanitarian action, as this would or could, in the minds of the authorities and the population, associate humanitarian organizations with political or military objectives that go beyond humanitarian concerns.25

Yet parties to the conflict in Afghanistan have not permitted humanitarian agencies to carry out independent aid programs necessary to prevent civilian starvation. The US in particular has subsumed relief operations within its military campaign and failed to facilitate separate humanitarian action by UN and private agencies. This mixing of military and humanitarian motives undermines the neutrality of relief operations, with dangerous consequences in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Violations of the Right to Food in the Afghanistan Conflict

Even before the current war, Afghanistan was the poorest country in Asia and faced a winter of severe food shortages, with an estimated five million people at risk.26 This was caused by over two decades of war and three years of successively worsening drought, as well as Taliban repression and UN Security Council sanctions.27

In recent months the magnitude of the crisis has grown due to increased hunger and decreased international food assistance.28 Both are a consequence of intensified war and US air strikes, which caused thousands of families to flee to the countryside and to border areas and disrupted the trucking routes used to supply millions of civilians with food aid.29 Early winter snows have already cut off some of the most remote and destitute areas of the country, leaving many thousands at grave risk of starvation.30

As illustrated by the following examples, all parties to the conflict have directly violated the right to food under human rights and humanitarian law by engaging in policies that have caused or contributed to the crisis in Afghanistan:

  • US (and to a lesser degree UK) bombing in major cities and populated areas caused massive civilian flight to areas that are less accessible to food delivery, or to camps for refugees and internally displaced persons whose survival is dependent upon food aid.31 Air strikes have also hit warehouses and food convoys, for example destroying ICRC warehouses in Kabul with food and blankets for 55,000 disabled civilians.32 Under the climate of fear caused by the air campaign, “aid agencies are findingit difficult to secure trucks and driverswilling to enter the war zone to carry the supplies.”33
  • The Taliban have obstructed food aid on numerous occasions. On 16 October Taliban forces temporarily took over two WFP facilities with 7,000 tons of grain, or 14% of the total food delivery target for November, and one week later occupied and looted an ICRC office in Mazar-i-Sharif.34 Lack of safety for its truckers prompted the WFP to “suspend operations, saying that the military attacks on Afghanistan made it too dangerous and that truck drivers had refused to go inside.”35
  • Northern Alliance forces have also routinely looted food deliveries since establishing control over most of the country: “Efforts to supply aid to Afghanistan have been severely hit by the return of anarchy on the highways which plagued the country before the Taliban came to power. Haulers who have ferried aid and commercial goods into Afghanistan since the collapse of Taliban rule have decided to cut back operations after being forced to hand over much of their cargo amid fears for their drivers’ safety.”36

By exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and failing to ensure civilian access to food and other lifesaving supplies that were readily available from international relief agencies, all parties to the conflict are responsible for systematic violations of the right to food. Precise degrees of responsibility cannot be allocated between the parties, but it must be emphasized that the Northern Alliance and US now exercise effective control over most of Afghanistan and its population, including the areas hardest hit by famine. As a result they are legally bound to take all possible steps to guarantee the right to food and prevent starvation.

Violations of Humanitarian Access

The military defeat of the Taliban was expected to provide a more secure environment to support the massive relief program necessary to avert a humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan. But many agencies are reporting that access to at-risk civilians has become even more difficult in terms of both food delivery inside Afghanistan and protection of refugees and internally displaced persons at the border areas.37

The collapse of the Taliban and reduced US bombing of cities has enabled aid agencies to transport greater tonnage of food into major population centers. However, with the Northern Alliance assuming control throughout Afghanistan, there has been a return to the local factionalism that characterized the 1992-96 period, when the country was torn apart by infighting.38 This means that secondary distribution to towns and villages in more remote areas – the critical step for getting food into the hands of those who actually need it – has become even more difficult in the face of increasingly localized violence and looting. The following examples illustrate this problem:

  • Shortly after the fall of Kabul, the BBC reported: “Since the Taliban were removed from areas around the main road between Pakistan and Kabul, hardly any food aid has got in because the route is so unstable.”39
  • Factional fighting among the Northern Alliance again forced aid agencies to withdraw their international staff from Mazar-i-Sharif on 3 December.40 A refugee analyst reported that: “In the first two weeks following the US-backed Northern Alliance’s capture of Mazar-i-Sharif and most of northern Afghanistan, delivery of humanitarian assistance dropped by more than half.”41
  • Oxfam America reports that: “large areas of the country are now riven by factionalism, war, looting, banditry and fear – a situation that is preventing food aid getting through… Three quarters of the trucking routes into Afghanistan are currently suspended… On 20 November, armed men stopped food convoys traveling from Kabul to Bamyan in the central highlands, as they tried to extort ‘taxes’.”42

The situation for Afghan refugees and IDPs has also deteriorated. Neighboring states have closed their borders to scores of civilians fleeing war and hunger, restricted their access to relief aid and organizations, and denied to those who do enter their territory the legal protections of refugee status, in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention’s requirement to “provide asylum to refugees, irrespective of their mode of arrival.”43 Such policies trap at-risk civilians in inhospitable areas “with cases of malnutrition and disease on the rise because essential, life-saving conditions such as access to food, clean water and medicines cannot be provided.”44 Rather than press for humanitarian access and free movement in accordance with international law, the US sent the FBI to help states tighten border controls.45

  • The Uzbek government continued to close its only bridge to Afghanistan even after the fall of the Taliban and restricted use of barges for transporting food aid, making it “impossible to increase the traffic of humanitarian aid that is of such vital importance to the populations of North Afghanistan.”46
  • Iran has established several new camps inside Afghanistan with very limited access to international relief agencies. This policy removes any recourse for refugees and IDPs to international legal monitoring and protection.47
  • Pakistan is relocating 70,000 Afghan refugees from Jalozai camp to new sites closer to the Afghan border. Médecins Sans Frontières has criticized this “utterly inhumane policy and practice… Moving them so close to the border not only puts their lives at risk, we also fear that it will make it easier for them to be pushed the last couple of kilometres back into Afghanistan in the near future.”48

Violations of the right to humanitarian access – by the Northern Alliance inside Afghanistan and the border states in connection with Afghan refugees and IDPs, with active US support – has placed significant numbers of civilians at risk of starvation and disease. Oxfam America has unequivocally condemned these policies:

The breakdown of the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law inside Afghanistan, and the collapse of the international refugee asylum system in the region, amount to a profound failure by the international community to uphold those measures introduced in the aftermath of the Second World War to ensure that massive abuses of human rights would never be allowed to happen again.49

Violations of Humanitarian Independence

The militarization of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan has resulted from an exclusive focus on US war objectives to the detriment of the international relief effort, as well as from the US strategy of dropping both “bombs and bread.” In October and November, the US and UK rejected calls by relief agencies for a temporary suspension of bombing in limited areas to enable distribution of humanitarian supplies.50 Even after the military collapse of the Taliban throughout most of Afghanistan, the US has continued to subordinate humanitarian objectives to its military priorities. Responding to a question about the need to focus on international peacekeeping and relief aid, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld declared on 30 November: “Needless to say, we would not want anything, including that, to happen in a way that would inhibit us from pursuing our goals of seeking out the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and seeing that the country is not a haven for terrorists.”51

While humanitarian agencies have been careful to avoid criticism of the conduct of the war, many have openly condemned the well-publicized US military policy of high altitude food drops as “a purely propaganda tool, of little real value to the Afghan people.”52 Military cargo planes have dropped over 2,125,000 individual meals,53 each containing 2,300 calories of beans with tomato sauce, peanut butter, strawberry jam, vinaigrette, biscuit, fruit pastry, shortbread, and a fruit bar,54 in “a yellow plastic pouch bearing a drawing of an American flag,a picture of a person eating food from a pouch and the message, in English: ‘Food Gift From The People Of The United States Of America’.”55 Yet aid agencies point out that even if every food packet reaches a hungry civilian, the total quantity could feed less than one-third of the at-risk population for a single day.56 Moreover, there are numerous reports of food drops being commandeered by armed men and sold in markets,57 and causing fatalities after landing in heavily mined areas.58

But of far graver concern is the prospect that US policy, by deliberately and publicly incorporating a humanitarian component within its military strategy, is undermining the impartiality of relief operations and distracting from more effective land distribution of staple goods. According to Oxfam America:

The current airdrops…risk confusing the military and humanitarian strategies with fatal consequences for the humanitarian effort. They also threaten to take attention off the far more vital need to get the land convoys scaled up.59

UN and private relief agencies have already come under attack during the conflict. Afghan factions in both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have targeted relief workers and stolen humanitarian supplies. Demonstrations in Pakistan and surrounding countries have destroyed UN facilities.60 Growing anger among Arabs and Muslims at perceived international bias was amplified when Osama bin Ladin publicly blamed the UN for supporting a war against Muslims.61

The US militarization of aid and failure to facilitate the impartial provision of humanitarian aid has identified the overall relief effort with one side of the conflict in the minds of many people in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Moreover, the policy of sidelining relief agencies until all war objectives are completed, despite the urgent need to respond to a grave humanitarian crisis, only heightens the impression that military priorities have totally superceded humanitarian concerns. Previous experience in Bosnia, Somalia, Chechnya and other conflict situations demonstrates that the perception of biased humanitarian involvement in an armed conflict poses grave dangers to the security of international relief workers and threatens the continued viability of the humanitarian concept.62



1 The right to food also includes access to safe drinking water, as water, like food, is essential for the survival of human beings and indispensable to agriculture, a fundamental element of the right to food.

2 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A of 10 December 1948, UN Doc. A/810 (1948).

3 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN Doc. A/RES/2200 A (XXI), (1966).

4 Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. A/RES/44/736 (1989).

5 Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, adopted on 16 November 1974 by the World Food Conference convened under G.A. Res. 3180 (XXVIII) of 17 December 1973, and endorsed by G.A. Res. 3348 (XXIX) of 17 December 1974.

6 General Comment 12 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR Committee), U.N. Doc. E/C.12/1999/5.

7 Ibid., para. 8.

8 See Asbjørn , Eide, “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Human Rights” in Eide, Krause and Rosas, eds.,Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: A Textbook, (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995).

9 “The obligation to respect existing access to adequate food requires States parties not to take any measures that result in preventing such access.” ESCR Committee, General Comment 12, para. 15.

10 “The right to life enunciated in article 6 of the Covenant has been dealt with in all State reports. It is the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted even in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” CCPR General Comment 6, The Right to Life.

11 Ibid.

12 The ESCR Committee has established that under the ICESR: “Every State is obliged to ensure for everyone under its jurisdiction access to the minimum essential food which is sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure their freedom from hunger.” General Comment 12, para. 14. Afghanistan ratified the ICESR on January 24, 1983.

13 “Government actually exercising power and control as opposed to the true and lawful [de jure] government; not lawfully entitled to recognition or supremacy but which has nevertheless supplanted or displaced the government de jure,” Black’s Law Dictionary.

14 The 4th Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War has been ratified by both Afghanistan and the United States.

15 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), and Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), have been ratified by the vast majority of States. Provisions guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid are considered part of customary international law and therefore binding on all States regardless of ratification. 

16 4th Geneva Convention Articles 23, 30, 38, 59 & 63, and Protocol I Articles 17 & 81.

17 4th Geneva Convention Articles 55 & 63.

18 See Resolution 4(g)(2) of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. See also A/RES/43/131.

19 “Afghanistan: ICRC call on all parties to conflict to respect international humanitarian law,” ICRC communication to the press 01/47, 24 October 2001.

20 4th Geneva Convention, Article 23.

21 Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol I, Article 81.

22 G.A. Res. A/RES/46/182. G.A. Res. A/RES/45/100 “stresses the important contribution made in providing humanitarian assistance by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations working with strictly humanitarian motives” (emphasis added).

23 Resolution 4(g)(2) of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

24 Peter Kung, ICRC Press Release SC/6371 3778th Meeting, “Difficulty of Providing Military Support for Humanitarian Operations While Ensuring Impartiality Focus of Security Council Debate,” 21 May 1997.

25 Jean-Daniel Tauxe, Director of Operations, ICRC, Geneva, 45th Rose-Ross Seminar, Montreux, 2 March 2000.

26 See CESR Factsheet #3, “Key Human Vulnerabilities”, 

27 See CESR Factsheet #2, “A Brief History Focusing on 1979-2001”, 

28 “The UN estimates that when winter sets in, up to 7.5 million Afghans could require outside aid to survive.” UNFPA, press release, “UN Population Fund Launches Emergency Effort to Save Afghan Women’s Lives,” 28 September 2001, .

29 CESR Factsheet #3.

30 UNICEF estimated on 28 September that “as many as 100,000 Afghan children could die this winter unless food reaches them in sufficient quantities in the next six weeks.” Agence France-Press, “100,000 Afghan Children Could Die This Winter: UNICEF,” 15 October 2001.

31 International Rescue Committee, “Averting Disaster in Afghanistan and Pakistan: The IRC Responds,” 19 October 2001, 

32 International Committee of the Red Cross, Press Release 01/48, “Bombing and occupation of ICRC facilities in Afghanistan,” 26 October 2001, 

33 “Annan wants U.S-led air strikes in Afghanistan to end soon,” Kyodo News Service, Japan Economic Newswire, 30 October 2001.

34 Emergency Report, Report n.42, ‘Afghanistan c)’, World Food Program, 19 October 2001, 

35 “Taleban 'demand tax' on aid convoy,” 11 October 2001, 

36 Chris Otton, “The return of Afghan highwaymen threatens aid trucks,” Agence France Presse, 18 November 2001.

37 Hiram Ruiz, senior policy analyst for the US Committee for Refugees, reports that: “Expectations of greater security, of an end to US bombing in many areas and the opening of new supply routes from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran… were quickly dashed by the lawlessness and banditry that followed the Taliban’s defeat.” MERIP Press Information Note 78, “Solutions Not Imminent for Afghan Displaced and Refugees,” (December 4, 2001). 

38 See CESR Factsheet #2.

39 BBC World News, “Fear and freedom in Kabul,” 22 November 2001.

40 Michael Steen, “Factional Fighting Erupts in Afghan North”, Reuters, 3 December 2001.

41 Ruiz, MERIP Press Information Note 78.

42 “Afghanistan: Greater UN role needed to prevent starvation and violence,” Oxfam Briefing Note, 21 November 2001, 

43 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,

44 Oxfam Briefing Note, “Between a rock and a hard place,” 9 November 2001.

45 “FBI trains Pakistani immigration personnel,” Agence France Presse, 30 November 2001.

46 Action Against Hunger, Press Release, “Aid blocked in Central Asia,” 21 November 2001,

47 Médecins Sans Frontières, “Afghans displaced in Mile 46 and Makaki camps,” 22 November 2001

48 Médecins Sans Frontières, “MSF opposes relocation of refugees from Jalozai camp,” 12 November 2001,

49 Oxfam Briefing Note, “Between a rock and a hard place,” 9 November 2001

50 Brian Groom, “Blair Rejects Calls For Allies to Halt Bomb Campaign,” Financial Times (London), 18 October 2001, “Some million worth of food aid, 10,000 tonnes in all, is to leave the U.S. by ship today for Afghanistan in an attempt to show the Bush administration's commitment to the humanitarian crisis as it continues its bombing campaign.” This food aid is stuck in warehouses outside Afghanistan for the most part and has not reached the needy. Mike Blanchfield, “Taliban fighters pose as refugees: Pashtuns blend into woodwork in Pakistan, as they wait to strike”, The Ottowa Citizen, 20 November 2001.

51 Department of Defense news briefing, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Peter Pace, 30 November 2001, 

52 Médecins Sans Frontières, press release, “MSF Rejects Link of Humanitarian and Military Actions,”

53 As of 3 December 2001. “Enduring Freedom Operational Update - Rear Adm. Stufflebeem”, US Department of Defense

54 Megan Rosenfeld, “Humanitarian cuisine: the somewhat tasty – and a bit odd – ration packages,” Washington Post, 13 October 2001.

55 Sylvia Carter, “The War On Terror; Food AidPackages Pass Taste Test, New York Newsday, 14 October 2001.

56 George Monbiot, “Folly of Aid and Bombs,” Guardian (UK), 9 October 2001,

57 A reporter investigating the food drops discovered that they rarely went to the intended beneficiaries: “This was US humanitarian aid intended to help the Afghan people survive the harsh winter. Instead, rival gunmen from local militias, vying to collect the booty for resale at local markets, opened fire on each other… ‘Armed people are waiting for it,’ Mohammad said. ‘ If someone else tries to take the aid, they shoot.’” David Filipov, “Fighting Terror Battle Over Aid: Idle Combatants Now Wage Battle For Us Aid Drops,” Boston Globe, 29 November 2001.

58 “In late November, two children were killed near Herat as they ran onto a mined field to collect food aid parcels dropped by US airplanes.” Ruiz, MERIP Press Information Note 78.

59 Oxfam America, “Drops in an Ocean”

60 “Several international and local relief agencies were reportedly attacked Monday and Tuesday in the towns of Hangu, Landi Kotal, and Bajuar around Peshawar. UNHCR's office in Quetta sustained relatively little damage in Monday's demonstrations.” UNHCR news stories, “Security Problems in Pakistan Pose Obstacles to Afghan Refugee Relief Effort,”

61 Videotaped statement released to Al-Jazeera, 3 November 2001.

62 See e.g. the case in which “Russian media reports have suggested that MSF was working illegally in Chechnya” in response to an abduction of aid workers. “MSF Urges Immediate Release of Abducted Aid Worker in Chechnya: Kenneth Gluck Medically at Risk,” Amsterdam/New York, 12 January 2001.