A Wrong Inflicted: Mass Starvation in the 21st Century

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A Wrong Inflicted: Mass Starvation in the 21st Century

Join us Wednesday May 8th at InterAction (lobby conference center) for an interactive discussion with Alex de Waal on the politics of mass starvation crimes

In his seminal book, “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine” (2018), Alex de Waal writes that modern famines do not occur by chance, but are rather the consequence of deliberate acts committed by political-military elites in pursuit of their strategic objectives.

From China and Cambodia to Eastern Europe and Ethiopia – de Waal analyzes 58 instances of mass starvation from 1870-2010 to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, famine is not a result of natural disasters or short food supply but is a product of intentional decisions. While overall mortality rates from famine have declined over the last century and a half, the number of famines has remained fairly steady with some peaks and falls. And over the last few years, famines are on the rise again.

Across several ongoing armed conflicts, such as in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, state and non-state armed actors deprive civilian populations and do so often as a means of political control. In Syria, the destruction of crops, farms, markets, roads, and bridges, has resulted in a loss of access to food sources and the means of production for civilian populations. In Yemen, the destruction of vital infrastructure amidst airstrikes has contributed to what is today the worst humanitarian crisis of the modern era. The bombing of businesses, factories, residential areas, roads, bridges, and markets has led to significant civilian harm, including a devastating impact on livelihoods and famine-like conditions.

Reflecting on contemporary armed conflict and political violence, De Waal characterizes current trends as “counter-humanitarianism” – a “political ideology and approach to conflicts that legitimizes political and military action that is indifferent to human life.”One year ago, in May 2018, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2417 on conflict and hunger, recognizing damage to livelihoods, assets, and means of production in military operations as critical contributors to hunger during wartime, and condemning the starvation of civilians as a tactic of war.

In a recent article, de Waal further elaborates on the need for a legal framework specifically addressing contemporary features of mass starvation. While several provisions of international law recognize deliberate acts starvation as a war crime, de Waal argues that current applicable law does not go far enough in creating the conditions under which famine could be prosecuted, particularly in non-international armed conflicts. While UNSC Resolution 2417 was a significant normative development in its recognition of how failure to comply with international humanitarian law contributes to hunger, the resolution contains no new law. De Waal writes, “For the famished people of South Sudan, properly recognizing starvation as a wrong inflicted, not just a suffering experienced, would emancipate the victims from the shame of hunger. It would allow them, at least, to bury their dead with dignity. This is the starting point for the concept of starvation crimes and necessary to reshaping our thinking about the political causes of famine.”

The significance of de Waal’s proposition is multifaceted. First, it engages the public to reflect on modern famine as inherently political – just like genocide, mass starvation is not a natural catastrophe. It is foreseeable and avoidable, provided the political will to stop it. Second, it reminds all of us of the importance of working with parties to the conflict so that they adhere to their legal obligations to spare civilian populations in the conduct of hostilities and to protect civilian objects indispensable to the their survival, such as crops, businesses, and vital infrastructure essential to ensuring the means of production and distribution, and other economic activity. Third, it challenges States to condemn these atrocities when they take place and to develop mechanisms to investigate, punish, prevent and, where possible, halt the occurrence of mass starvation crimes. Finally, it encourages civil society around the world to be seized with the issue of modern famine and calls on political leaders to take concrete steps against this preventable yet ongoing tragedy.

The context of this conversation on reducing mass starvation is the reality of fragile, absent, and abusive states. At best, they lack the capacity to provide basic governance and security, and at worst, many have succumbed to entrenched patronage networks that perpetrate acts of mass starvation. At either pole and in all gradations in between, people struggle to weather a number of political, economic, social, and environmental shocks and stressors.

De Waal’s research brings to light that some shocks in these contexts, like “the political decision to create famine,” are created by political elites as part of a broader strategy to oppress dissenting electorates, civil society, and the media, appease the justice and security institutions that protect them, and ultimately, stay in power.

Policy and practical prescriptions built on de Waal’s new conceptual frame must look toward the known pathways to mass starvation and famine, and beyond solely environmental conditions in a manner divorced from their political context and the strategic intent of its protagonists. Effective policy by states must fully comprehend the threat environment vulnerable people face and move us from reaction to “pro-action.”

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