Read On! Starvation as a Weapon – Domestic Policies of Deliberate Starvation as a Means to an End under International Law

The media’s fondness for images of cracked earth and withered crops gives us the impression that famine is caused by forces beyond human control. In reality, however, famines are often strategic, deliberately engineered by governments or their opponents, in a calculated effort to achieve their political ends. When humanitarian aid was blocked in Somalia by the Al-Shabaab rebels, or the fields and forests of certain ethnic groups were targeted in Darfur, the decision to deprive the population of food was political. In the smouldering conflict in Yemen, the biggest problem that civilians face is hunger. Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, just warned last week of deliberate starvation of civilians in Yemen.
But starvation is not just used as a military weapon; it is often deployed for political or economic purposes. In 2002, the president of Zimbabwe implemented a land reform that returned white-owned land to black Zimbabweans. This mass eviction, conducted without appropriate compensation, resulted in mass starvation. In this case, the Zimbabwean government not only deprived people of their livelihoods, but also restricted international food aid, allegedly wielding food supplies as a political weapon against opposition supporters.
A close look at modern famine shows that, in many cases, food scarcity is not the product of coincidence. Instead we see that many famines are side effects of, or the result of a deliberate strategy. There are some who argue persuasively that all famines in the 20th century were resulted from, or were exacerbated by political manoeuvring. War and repressive government policies can play a significant role in famines even when drought or flood are proximate causes. In a world where munitions are expensive, famine is a low-cost method of political coercion, and of waging war. It is a readily available weapon even in the least developed nations. Politicians and military leaders know how to leverage access to food, and can use it to their own benefit. It is an efficient instrument when used to exert pressure and power, in times of war and peace.
How does the framework of international law prevent deliberate starvation as a means of achieving political goals? What duties do the human rights obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil impose on states with respect to famines? And what prohibitions does international humanitarian law offer against deliberate starvation?
The book Starvation as a Weapon considers, within the framework of international law, the legality of using deliberate starvation as a means to an end. The analysis focuses on instances in which deliberate starvation is deployed domestically, i.e. carried out within the state’s own national territory. Domestic starvation policies are often poorly reported and deliberately concealed by the perpetrators. In countries where malnutrition is already widespread, emerging famines often go unnoticed by the international community. Famines are also highly divisive; few affect more that 5-10% of the overall population, so they may be invisible within a state. Famines may even be created in states where food is abundant. Lack of transparency often makes it difficult or impossible to scrutinise the domestic policy behind prevailing food scarcity; for example, they may not be detectible through the media blockade erected by a totalitarian regime.