Governments weaponize famine. See it working in these 4 nations.

Summary: Brutal famine has four nations in its grip, deliberate results of their governments’ policies. While we wreck the Middle East, spreading jihadist movements, they get a pass (unless we help them). This is a powerful article with horrific news.

Famine in Africa

The Nazis Used It, We Use It

Alex de Waal on the return of famine as a weapon of war.
Excerpt from the London Review of Books, 15 June 2017.

In its primary use, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive: it’s something people do to one another, like torture or murder. Mass starvation as a consequence of the weather has very nearly disappeared: today’s famines are all caused by political decisions, yet journalists still use the phrase ‘man-made famine’ as if such events were unusual. …

Statement of Stephen O’Brien to the Security Council on 10 March 2017.
He was UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

“We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease. Children stunted and out of school. Livelihoods, futures and hope will be lost. Communities’ resilience rapidly wilting away. Development gains reversed. Many will be displaced and will continue to move in search for survival, creating ever more instability across entire regions.”

Four famines killing today.

O’Brien had no illusions about the causes of the four famines, actual or imminent, that he singled out in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. In each case, the main culprits are wars that result in the destruction of farms, livestock herds and markets, and ‘explicit’ decisions by the military to block humanitarian aid.

Famine in Nigeria.

In Nigeria, villages in the path of the war between Boko Haram and the army have been stripped of assets, income and food. As the army slowly reduces the areas under Boko Haram control, they are finding small towns where thousands starved to death last year. …

Famine in South Sudan.

In South Sudan, the government and the rebel armies have fought much less against each other than against the civilian population. In the summer of 2016, evidence from aid agencies showed nutrition and death rates in the region that met the UN criteria for determining that a food crisis has reached famine levels. Fearing that declaring famine would antagonise the South Sudanese government, already paranoid and cracking down on international aid agencies (aid workers were being robbed, raped and murdered), the UN prevaricated. By February, even veterans of South Sudan’s horrendous famines of the 1980s were saying that this was as bad as anything in their experience, perhaps worse. The UN duly declared a famine.

Yemen in Crisis

Famine in Yemen.

Yemen, however, is the biggest impending disaster. Don’t be fooled by pictures showing hungry people in arid landscapes: the weather had nothing to do with the famine. More than seven million people in Yemen are hungry; far more are likely to die of starvation and disease than in battles and air raids. The military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has strangled the country’s economy.

Before the war, 80% of Yemen’s food was imported, mostly through the Red Sea port of al-Hudaida. At Saudi insistence, backed by the US and the UK, the UN Security Council imposed a blockade on Yemen and while there’s an exemption for food, the inspection procedures are slow and laborious. Since Saudi aircraft bombed the container docks at al-Hudaida, all ships have to be unloaded the old-fashioned way, using derricks and stevedores. Roads, bridges and markets have been damaged or destroyed, slowing commerce to a crawl. The Bank of Yemen, relocated from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the enclave controlled by the recognised government, no longer pays salaries. The Houthi forces also impose their own blockades, laying siege to the highland city of Taizz.

Food is the biggest weapon, and lack of food the biggest killer, in the Yemen war. …While the famine deepens, the British and American navies persist in enforcing the blockade and diplomats at the Security Council discuss how they could recalibrate the embargo. All are in danger of becoming accessories to starvation.

Famine in Somalia.

Only in Somalia is drought partially responsible for the situation, though the war between a coalition of north-east African armies and the militant group al-Shabaab is primarily responsible for the immiseration of areas in the south of the country. Until this year, Somalia was the only country this century where the UN had declared the presence of famine: that was in 2011. In their recent book Dan Maxwell and Nisar Majid describe that famine as a ‘collective failure’.​

Incompetence on the part of the Somali authorities and corruption are other factors. A final element in the 2011-12 famine – which still rankles with aid professionals who struggled to halt an eminently preventable disaster – was the restriction on humanitarian work imposed by the US Patriot Act of 2001. Intended to criminalise support – material or symbolic, deliberate or inadvertent – for any group on the terrorist list, the Patriot Act meant that it was practically impossible for an aid agency to operate in the famine-stricken area without risking prosecution in a US court. …In the nine months it took the DoJ to come up with {a solution}, the world’s biggest aid donor shipped no food to Somalia. Perhaps 260,000 Somalis, mainly children, died in that time. Most of the deaths could have been prevented if the Obama Administration had been more alert to a disaster caused by its decision to leave the Patriot Act untouched. …

These political famines seem scarcely to register in our collective imagination. They are strikingly absent too from the books which construct theories of famine and policies for food security. …

Starving millions is legal because we want to use famine as a tool.

The legal difficulties in prosecuting starvation as a crime included the need to determine whether starvation was itself unlawful, and if it was what sort of a crime it might be, and how guilt might be proved. The laws of war did not prohibit starvation in pursuit of a military goal: it was legitimate to starve a besieged city into submission, or to blockade an entire country. …

By the time of the war crimes trials, the British navy was already a seasoned exponent of maritime blockade. In 1909 the House of Lords refused to ratify the London Declaration on the laws of naval war, on the grounds that doing so would restrict the navy’s ability to block the flow of foodstuffs to an enemy. Establishing an international court to determine the legality of intercepting ships on the high seas, the Lords felt, would amount to a contravention of British sovereignty.

Britain blockaded Germany during the First World War, and about 750,000 German civilians died of hunger. That blockade was kept in place (and tightened) for eight months after the Armistice in order to compel the Germans to sign the Versailles Treaty. In 1942 Churchill came under heavy pressure to lift the blockade on Greece, and only reluctantly and minimally relented …. The following year, the cabinet made feeding the British Isles a higher priority than preventing famine in Bengal, a decision that cost as many as three million lives. Most tellingly, the name chosen for the aerial mining of Japanese harbours in 1945 by the US Air Force was Operation Starvation. …

In 1998, when the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC) was negotiated, a Cuban proposal to prohibit blockades was rejected. At precisely the same time, the US and its allies were enforcing sanctions on Iraq. …

Western humanitarianism was compromised once counter-terrorism enabled the overruling of humanitarian principles by security dictat, as Peter Gill explains in Today We Drop Bombs, Tomorrow We Build Bridges: How Foreign Aid Became a Casualty of War. …

Drawing on a long Anglo-American tradition of economic warfare and blockade, the counter-humanitarian trend in London and Washington is both morally distasteful and practically stupid. When international aid fails to feed the hungry and treat the sick, extremist projects flourish. If security strategists and xenophobes think that humanitarian crises will burn themselves out at a safe distance they are mistaken …Their best strategy is to take the initiative and propose that starvation be added to the list of crimes against humanity.

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Alex de Waal

About the author

Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation. “Considered one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, HIV/AIDS and governance in Africa, and conflict and peace-building.” See his bio, his publications, his articles at the LRB, and his Wikipedia entry.

His most recent book is The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power.

For More Information

See this horrific article about the US-caused famine in Iraq during the 1990-1998 sanctions. See this article about The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

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