Is Famine A Crime Against Humanity?

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa, which has killed thousands and put hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, at risk is certainly the result of human behavior, but is it a crime? A new report by the anti-genocide group Enough thinks so.

In the report, Matt Bryden, coordinator of the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, argues “it’s no coincidence that the famine zone corresponds broadly with those areas controlled by the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab”. Indeed it has been widely reported that the rebel group has been intentionally preventing civilians from receiving food aid at camps. Last week, Somalia’s Shabelle Media Network reported that “local residents … saw Al shabaab taking those famine displaced people [in] big trucks returning back to their rural areas where the UN declared a famine in six regions of Somalia.” Brydan correctly argues that these and similar actions by the Islamist group are the cause of the famine, not climate change or even indirect consequences of the conflict.

However, the report’s author does not restrict the blame to al-Shabaab. He also goes after the Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which controls only a small fraction of the country. Specifically, Bryden accuses TFC officials of gross levels of graft and even sale of food aid in Mogadishu, “under ordinary circumstances such actions may qualify as corruption. With three quarters of a million people on the brink of starvation, they become crimes against humanity”.

Bryden admits that al-Shabaab’s leaders are unlikely to ever be put on trial from their alleged crimes but he suggests that TFG officials might be more easily brought to justice. The takeaway is that the international community must not turn a blind eye to gross and deliberate misconduct by political leaders when those actions threaten hundreds of thousands. “Aid and accountability must go hand in hand” argues Bryden, “both as a gesture of respect to the victims and also to ensure that Somalia
never suffers such crimes again.”

So can a deliberate famine be a crime against humanity? Yes, and it won’t be the first time. In the early 1900s, the Herero people living in the German colony of Southwest Africa rebelled. In response, the Kaiser ordered General Lother von Trotha to destroy the tribe. To accomplish this, the General employed a simple but brutal strategy: he created an artificial famine. Outmaneuvering the Herero people, he encircled them except for a gap in the direction of the Omaheke desert. Left no where else to go, Herero men, women, and children fled into the desert. Then von Trotha’s men sealed all waterholes around the desert and blocked any escape with 250km of fences, guard posts, and patrols. The Herero tribe was trapped in the desert with no means of acquiring food or water. The general effectively created an artificial famine to do the killing for him. The strategy was a powerful method of killing, before the 1904 rebellion Hereros numbered 80,000 in South West Africa. In 1911, that number was 15,000. In 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker Report called the German strategy one of the earliest genocides of the 20th century. In 2004, Germany officially apologized.

The history of the Herero genocide teaches us that you don’t need to be holding a weapon to commit mass-murder; allowing famine and dehydration to do the killing for you is enough. It is a lesson that should be on the minds of al-Shabaab, the TFG, and all of us.

Photo Credit: Enough, FEWS NET, FSNAU/FAO