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To End Famines, Prosecute Leaders Who Use Hunger as a Weapon: Expert

Elevating famine to the level of a war crime or a crime against humanity could help shame warring factions into avoiding the conditions that cause this phenomenon, says researcher Alex de Waal.

Written by Andrew Green Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Areas of war-torn South Sudan tipped over into famine last year and the country continues to experience widespread food insecurity. ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images

It is possible to completely end famines, according to Alex de Waal, a Tufts University-based researcher, but not without a global effort to hold accountable the people who create the conditions for these emergencies.

Most forms of famine are all but eradicated, de Waal found in researching his new book, “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine,” and recent incidents now stem primarily from conflict. Elevating the actions that cause famines to the level of a war crime or a crime against humanity, he argues, might encourage leaders to stop using hunger as a weapon of war.

Speaking to Malnutrition Deeply on the sidelines of the Global Hunger Today conference in Cork, Ireland, de Waal outlined the history of famines, including the shifting perception of famine as a prosecutable crime – a recent phenomenon that he hopes to cultivate.

Malnutrition Deeply: What led you to writing this book and what are the key messages?

Alex de Waal: I started working on this issue of famine in the 1980s and was very much engaged with the study of famine and activism around the prevention of famine in the ’80s and ’90s. Then I didn’t do so much on it.

Three years ago, I was asked by Concern Worldwide to author an essay on conflict and hunger for the Global Hunger Index. In doing that, I thought, “Let me take a bird’s eye view. Let me take a view from 30,000ft and look at what’s happened to famine over the last 150 years globally.” Because it struck me that famines have faded, that back in the ’70s and ’80s, we were hearing about them all the time, and now they seemed to have faded.

Malnutrition Deeply: And is that what you found?

De Waal: Indeed, that’s really the first finding of my book, that there were about 60 – depending on exactly how you counted them – about 60 famines since 1870. Before 1870 the data aren’t very good, but since 1870 about 60 famines, in which we know that 100,000 or more people died. According to the minimal credible estimates for mortality, they killed just over 100 million people, those 60-odd famines, and almost all of them died in the time from 1870 to about 1980.

After that, the level of famine mortality massively dropped off. So there’s something very positive been going on in the world. My question is what’s brought this to an end?

Malnutrition Deeply: What did you find?

De Waal: A number of factors are at play: Big economic changes in the world. Reduction in poverty. Increasing food production, particularly in Asia. Better markets. More democracy – democracy is very closely associated with efforts against famine. Better public health, because the majority of people who died in these historic famines died of infectious diseases.

Then over the last 30 years, a massive improvement in the professionalism and in the scale of the humanitarian operation.

Malnutrition Deeply: What else did you learn?

De Waal: The other main finding that I had, which I hadn’t really expected, was the extent to which the famine, the great famines of the past, and indeed the ongoing famines, were really overwhelmingly associated with military and political action. Because what I did was not only look at the famines that are in the regular register of famines, but also incidents of forced mass starvation.

During the Armenian genocide, more than a million people were starved to death. In the Eastern Front in World War II, the Nazis starved millions of people to death.

In the middle part of the 20th century, the famines were overwhelmingly genocidal or associated with total war. In the postwar period – the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s ­– they were overwhelmingly totalitarian governments in the postcolonial Third World. And in recent years very much associated with wars, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

This led me on to the question of famine as a crime, which is an issue that I’d talked about many years ago, but I began to really think of famine as a crime against humanity or as a war crime much more specifically.

What I found was that famine had not been criminalized. In fact, it had been regarded as quite normal during war until really quite recently. It’s only in the last 30 years or so that we have begun to have a body of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity that is very clear that starvation is prohibited.

Malnutrition Deeply: In which case, what should be done about it?

De Waal: Should we be prosecuting those responsible? I argue, yes, we should. On the other hand, there are some major problems involved with that. First of all, we only ever get in these types of prosecutions, you only get a very small number of people. Secondly, there are also complications for humanitarian agencies. If you are a humanitarian agency operational in South Sudan, you are having a difficult enough time with the government already. Then if the government thinks that you’re collecting evidence to prosecute them for war crimes, life may be more difficult, and the people you’re trying to serve may suffer even more.

I formulated it slightly differently. The fundamental goal is actually to make famine, mass starvation, so morally toxic, so publicly vilified, that it’s unthinkable in the way that the use of the chemical weapons is something that is unthinkable. It’s just beyond the moral pale.

Yes, we could have some prosecutions here and there, but we would have to be very selective, very careful. The purpose of those prosecutions, they’re not an end in themselves. They’re a signal that this is something that is unacceptable. It’s totally criminal, unlawful, unethical.

Malnutrition Deeply: Do you think that following this model will then potentially spell the end of famine?

De Waal: I think the abolition of famine, the end of famine is something that’s eminently achievable. We came very close to it, and I think the final step in getting rid of famine is to prohibit it because famines that are caused by economic hardship or natural adversity, we no longer have those. The only famines we have are those that are caused by military and political actions, so they can be prohibited.

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