Famine Crimes and Tragedies – Alex de Waal

Posted November 9, 2022
Plenary presentation at Galway, “A Food Secure Future for Everyone.”

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor at the Fletcher School, Tufts University delivered a keynote address this years IFIAD Annual Conference, 7 November 2022

Starvation is a cruel but effective weapon of war. That’s why governments like to use it, and why attempts to expose it and ban it run into so many difficulties.

One of the reasons why hunger is so valued is that it’s a stealth weapon. Starvation crimes are often white-collar atrocities.

They are perpetrated by people—almost all men—who are remote from the crime scene, usually anonymous.

Those who commit famine crimes are expert in coopting those who are supposed to save the victims. Humanitarian workers, from high officials to front-line staff, are put under enormous pressure to treat the crisis as an impersonal disaster and not to point the finger of blame. They want to get aid to the victims and know that calling out the perpetrator will make their job more difficult.

It’s as though emergency medical staff, arriving at the scene of a car crash, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that certified that no driver, however drunk, could be investigated for culpability.

The perpetrators’ cruellest trick of all of is to co-opt the victims and survivors. To make them believe that it’s their own fault, to blur the distinction between perpetrator and victim. That the quotidian indignities and cruelties that make up the experience of collective starvation are the result of their own failings. To create, as Breandan Mac Suibhne describes for the great English famine in Ireland 180 years ago, using a term first coined by Primo Levi in his book, Survival in Auschwitz, a “grey zone” in which a society turns on itself inflicting all manner of intimate violations of social norms.

That’s another layer of tragedy, that social torture is worse than the aggregate of individual tragedies.

And our tongues become tied in the process. We speak about “famine” in the same breath as natural disaster, building a mental wall between starvation and atrocity. We use the verb to starve in its intransitive sense—a child starves, as though he or she has an impersonal affliction. We don’t say, the generals, or the politicians, or the corporations and market speculators, starved that child.

The most salient case in point is Tigray, Ethiopia.

You will have seen that last week, the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF signed a peace agreement in South Africa, promising to silence the guns.

This agreement came two years, less one day, after a needless war was waged in that region. A region infamous among many of my generation for being the epicentre of the famine of 1984/85, which had outraged Bob Geldof among many others. A region that had not seen starvation for thirty years due to the combined efforts of a government determined to avoid such calamities in future, and international aid donors who were also anxious not to see man-made famine stalk the land.

Over the last 2 years, that war cost probably one tenth of Tigray’s pre-war population of 6m, due to hunger and disease plus hundreds of thousands more on the battlefield on both sides. Millions have been forcibly displaced, including from the most agriculturally productive areas. Most of the essential infrastructure has been destroyed—stolen, ransacked, vandalized. Hospitals lack the most basic supplies. People’s life savings are locked away in bank accounts that have been frozen. And there has been a starvation siege imposed, whereby only about 15 percent of the essential food needs have been permitted through by the joint besieging powers of the Federal Government of Ethiopia and its ally, the State of Eritrea.

That’s about the same level of rations permitted into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis in 1941.

We heard next to nothing about this crime and this tragedy because of an information blackout. The last foreign journalist who was allowed in was in June—June 2021 that is. A tiny number of United Nations and humanitarian workers were allowed to operate, on strict orders to keep their lips sealed. They weren’t allowed to collect the essential, simple data that would allow the world to know what is happening.

Over the months, especially since August, there has been a massive military assault on Tigray in which the Federal Government and its ally Eritrea were ready to sacrifice scores of thousands of conscript soldiers to wear down the other side. That ground down the Tigrayan defences, in a manner that some humanitarians from the generation before mine will recognize from Biafra.

Also like Biafra, the key weapon was hunger. The people of Tigray were dying in appalling numbers. They could not survive. Their cries for help went unheeded.

The peace settlement was extremely favourable to the federal government. Essentially what happened was that the Tigrayan leadership calculated that their society could no longer withstand the onslaught. And their appeals to the world to end the war crime of starvation were not being heeded. So they sued for peace.

I don’t know if the peace deal will hold. On paper it’s a desperately weak deal that depends on the good will and sound strategic judgement of the Federal Government—qualities that have been notably lacking up to now. It also relies on vigilant and stern monitoring and response from international aid donors, which have also been notably lacking.

What the deal signals is that starvation works. It’s an advertisement to war-makers and autocrats around the world, for how to get your way. Hunger is cruel, efficient, and silent.

The act of naming is an act of emancipation. Naming the crime of starvation is the first step.

This is a theme that resonates on this island.

For decades, if not generations, there was a collusive effort by the authorities in London and Dublin, and even among many of those who resisted them, to see the Great Hunger as a step—perhaps a painful and regrettable one—towards modernity on this island. It was commonplace to recognize the famine as a natural disaster, a self-inflicted wound, with at worst cruel shortcomings in the provision of mercy.

It was called the Irish famine, after the place where it happened, not the place where it was engineered. There are memorials across Ireland. There are three in Boston where I live. But there isn’t a single one in London where the starvation originated. At the most appropriate spot in London, between the Treasury and the FCO, is a statute of Robert Clive, so-called “Clive of India,” after the nation he ravaged. The Indians, of course, don’t call him that.

When I proposed it be renamed “the great English famine in Ireland,” the sentiment was appreciated, but the leaders of this country thought that it would be an impolitic decision. A sensitivity to one’s neighbour that has not always been reciprocated, to say the least.

Ireland has been a member of the UNSC for 22 months. During that period it has championed the cause of hunger, and in particular the issue of resolution 2417 on armed conflict and hunger, the landmark resolution passed in May 2018 which for the first time recognized at the level of the UNSC that armed conflict was the principal driver of hunger and that the use of hunger as a weapon of war could constitute a war crime.

The issue of global food security has certainly risen up the agenda, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disruption to the supply of food onto world markets from the Black Sea. But with more attention to the world food crisis has come less of a readiness to confront the criminality that drives the most severe crises, where famines actually happen.

The facts need not be detailed to an audience. All of you are familiar with the figures. And insofar as any data are disputed, it’s because they may be overtaken by events, or subject to arbitrary metrics and thresholds.

Perhaps 80 million people around the world face food insecurity, according to UN criteria. Many hundreds of millions more live precarious lives, plunging into hunger should the price of food rise, or should their incomes diminish. Covid-19 and its impacts, climate crisis, grain market speculation, the world economic recession, and all manner of other shocks leave these people vulnerable.

A hundred years ago, the British historian RH Tawney described the Chinese peasant of that era as akin to a man standing up to his chin in water, so that even a small ripple would be sufficient to drown him. It takes a bigger wave.

Today we have a world that is more complex. Overall, with growing income and reducing poverty, cheaper food and more integrated food markets, that water level has dropped. Famines have become less frequent and less virulent, and famines directly caused by natural calamity have all-but-disappeared. Today’s famines are overwhelmingly caused, as an immediate trigger—the combat metaphor is appropriate here—by government malfeasance or war. And it takes more than a ripple to drown the average peasant, or worker.

But two things have happened, broadly. One is that hundreds of millions of people have not shared in that relative prosperity. They livelihoods are so precarious that they depend, day to day, on meagre income, and on stable prices for essentials such as food and medicine.

The other is that in our complex and turbulent world, the waves are getting higher. So the combination of food and fuel price increases, tightening access to credit, economies contracting, and more natural disasters, leaves far more people desperately vulnerable.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disruption to world food markets that resulted was one additional factor that pushed millions to the edge. In particular, people in countries where they imported food from the Black Sea, and couldn’t readily replace those contracts with food from elsewhere.

The Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, primarily intended to squeeze the Ukrainian economy, was an outrage and quite possibly a crime. It was a kind of reverse blockade: stopping food getting out of a country rather than preventing it getting in. It destabilized wheat markets in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Bangladesh. I doubt that Russia intended that, but it opportunistically utilized that as an opportunity to extract concessions from western countries.

The World Food Programme buys as much as half its wheat from the Black Sea region. Prior to the Russian invasion it was already facing a massive increase in costs because of rising food prices—driven especially by market speculation—and increasing costs of fuel. It faced a budget crunch earlier this year.

But let’s not confuse this world food crisis and the World Food Programme budget crisis with the urgent threat of mass starvation in those countries where famine is a real possibility.

Those at risk of famine mostly in conflict-affected countries, and most severe where hunger is used as a weapon. As well as Tigray, those cases include Afghanistan, north-east Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.  In Somalia and southern and western Ethiopia, it’s a combination of drought and conflict. In a few places such as southern Madagascar and Kenya, it’s drought. And everywhere, where drought is the immediate culprit, it comes on top of decades of under-development, marginalization and kleptocratic government.

But the debates at the UN, at the special summit in May, and the special session at the Security Council in September, we see a sharp pivot. The UN and governments begin by saying, correctly, that armed conflict creates hunger. Then, often within a few sentences, they pivot from those acts of deprivation, from starvation as a weapon, to a focus on food supplies and humanitarian logistics.

At the African Union Peace and Security Council, debating the topic of armed conflict and hunger, there was no mention at all of the fact that starvation can be a war crime.

Ireland has championed this issue, both in general and in specific cases such as Tigray. It has faced outright opposition, especially from Russia, China and, most of the time, the three African nations at the UNSC. It has faced equivocation and indifference from others including the US and other European nations, with some honorable exceptions such as Norway.

One cannot get away from the sombre conclusion that the efforts to focus prohibiting starvation, which culminated in resolution 2417, is fading.

There are some gestures and fine words. But at the sharp point, where hard decisions have to be made, the record is failure. When Ireland was threatened by Ethiopia, with direct threats against its embassy and staff in Addis Ababa, for having taken a stand against starvation crimes, other nations did not rush to Ireland’s defence.

In Afghanistan, the US refuses to take important steps to unblock the financial system. Yes, it’s true that the Taliban would benefit from the funds unlocked. But in the trade-off between feeding the hunger and loosening the financial screws on a terrible government, the wrong decision is being taken. Just as twelve years ago, as hunger deepened in Somalia the U.S. administration refused to find a way for humanitarian agencies to work in areas controlled by a designated terrorist organization, al-Shabaab, lifting the threat of prosecuting aid givers who might inadvertently have provided assistance, moral or material, to the terrorists, only when the UN belatedly declared “famine.”

This month, when the Tigrayan authorities decided that they would abandon most of their political demands and sue for peace, to save their people from starvation, there has not been a single international statement expressing understanding or sympathy for their decision.

As of yesterday, the Ethiopian government had only begun resuming services and allowing aid to the places it controls, denying services and aid to those controlled by the Tigrayans. Without a word of international condemnation. It’s a shameless demonstration that in 2022, life-saving aid is not a right but is conditioned on politics.

I fear that this is not only a tragedy for the people of Tigray but also an augur for the cynical, unprincipled politics of food that this famine crime—and the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators—portends.

On my way here I spoke with a friend in the Tigrayan capital Mekele, who asked me to pass the message, one humble voice from the epicentre of the famine, that the people of Tigray would never forget the Irish for remembering that they, too, are human beings.

And I congratulate Ireland for its principled and brave, albeit lonely, stand on this issue. I hope that when Ireland rotates off the Security Council in seven weeks’ time, others will carry the torch. I trust that Ireland will continue to demand accountability for famine crimes as well as offer mercy to the victims of the tragedy of hunger, and I hope that others will join. I look forward to the day when we can speak with candour as well as compassion, with the outrage that today’s famine crimes and tragedies demand.

7 November 2022