The Nazis Used It, We Use It

Alex de Waal on the return of famine as a weapon of war

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.

Over the last half-century, famines have become rarer and less lethal. Last year I came close to thinking that they might have come to an end. But this year, it’s possible that four or five famines will occur simultaneously. ‘We stand at a critical point in history,’ the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the former Tory MP Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council in March, in one of his last statements before stepping down: ‘Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.’ It’s a ‘critical’ point, I’d argue, not because it is the worst crisis in our lifetime, but because a long decline – lasting seven decades – in mass death from starvation has come to an end; in fact it has been reversed.

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. 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. The counter-insurgency grinds on, and the specialists who compile the data fed into the blandly named ‘integrated food security phase classification’ (IPC) system worry that in this year’s ‘hungry season’, approximately June to October, communities in the war zones will again move up the IPC scale: from level four (‘humanitarian emergency’) to five (‘famine’). Last year in Nigeria, the UN and relief agencies could say that they didn’t appreciate the full extent of the crisis. This year we have been given due warning.

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, 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 per cent 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.

Unlike their blunt statements on war crimes in South Sudan, UN and aid agency statements on Yemen are muted: it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they feel unable to criticise Security Council decisions. 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.

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 principle, if al-Shabaab hijacked a truckload of food provided by the Red Cross, the Red Cross would be criminally liable. Even the threat of prosecution posed a risk to their reputation that aid agencies weren’t ready to run. Staff at USAID and the State Department worked to find a way round this provision, but the Justice Department was immovable until the UN’s declaration of famine prompted a belated attempt to find a solution. In the nine months it took the DoJ to come up with one, 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.

The humanitarian workaround – ‘carve out’ is the term used – of the Patriot Act is still in place. But it’s provisional and unclear, and the chilling effect of security surveillance of humanitarian actions in countries like Somalia, Syria and Yemen remains. Feeding the hungry and treating the sick are subject to security screening. It’s not only burdensome and intrusive, but deters the energetic and creative aid work needed in these crises.

Perhaps even more damaging has been the clampdown on money transfers. Remittances from the diaspora contribute at least 30 per cent of Somalia’s national income, and in the absence of a normal banking system, funds are transmitted through companies that use the hawala system. The businessmen who run these companies are interested in profit not ideology, but since 2001 counter-terrorist organisations have tended to target them as possible accomplices to terror, rather than as commercial service providers who might co-operate in a regulatory framework that serves everyone’s interests. Since November 2001, when the US shut down al-Barakaat, the biggest of these companies, on the basis of (unfounded) allegations that it was involved in terrorist financing, the Somali financial sector has been repeatedly battered by arbitrary restrictions and – as a consequence – the commercial banks have refused to do business with them.

Drought and crop failure have a part to play in this year’s hunger in Somalia, while the much more widespread drought in neighbouring Ethiopia passed off last year without famine thanks to an expeditious relief effort led by the government. At one point, the Ethiopian government and the UN World Food Programme were feeding 18 million Ethiopians, a higher number than the in-need populations of the four countries on today’s danger list combined. There’s nothing inevitable about people dying from hunger when the rains fail. That fact can never be repeated too often.

The organisation I work for, the World Peace Foundation, has compiled a catalogue of every case of famine or forced mass starvation since 1870 that killed at least 100,000 people. There are 61 entries on the list, responsible for the deaths of at least 105 million people. About two thirds of the famine deaths in this period were in Asia, about 20 per cent in Europe and the USSR, just under 10 per cent in Africa. The biggest killers were famines that resulted from political decisions, among them the Gilded Age famines, the Great War famines in the Middle East, including the forced starvation of a million Armenians, the Russian Civil War famine, Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine from 1932 until 1934 (now known as the Holodomor), the Nazi ‘hunger plan’ for the Soviet Union, the famines during the Chinese Civil War, the starvation inflicted by the Japanese during the Second World War, and by Mao’s Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, the largest famine on record, which killed at least 25 million.


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. Even Amartya Sen did not take them into account when developing his ‘entitlement theory’ of famine causation in Poverty and Famine (1981), which overturned explanations of famine based exclusively on food shortage. In the WPF’s catalogue of great famines, 72 million deaths occurred when famine was being used as an instrument of genocide or recklessly inflicted by government policy. Ignoring these famines, or ascribing them to natural disasters, is a major error.

Another blind spot is even more remarkable: the neglect of starvation on the part of genocide scholars. It’s striking because the intellectual father of genocide studies, Raphael Lemkin, was keenly interested in the politics of food and famine. In fact, in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) he devoted more space to starvation and related deprivation than to mass killing. Elaborating on the physical debilitation of groups as a technique of genocide, he began by describing ‘racial discrimination in feeding’ and detailed Nazi guidelines specifying the portion of basic nutrients allocated to different groups, ranging in the case of carbohydrates from 100 per cent for Germans to 76-77 per cent for Poles, 38 per cent for Greeks and 27 per cent for Jews. The second mechanism Lemkin described was the endangering of health by overcrowding in ghettos, withholding medicine and heating fuel, and transporting people in cattle trucks and freight cars. The third was mass killings, which he described in a single paragraph.

When Lemkin began writing his book, starvation was the Nazis’ most effective instrument of mass murder. The rationale for Operation Barbarossa was that the Ukraine and southern Russia were resource-rich lands that would provide Lebensraum for the German people. Central to the planning of Barbarossa was the question of how to feed the Wehrmacht. At the post-Nuremberg trial of senior civil servants in 1947, the prosecution reproduced a document entitled ‘Memorandum on the Result of Today’s Conference with the State Secretaries concerning Barbarossa’, dated 2 May 1941, just a few weeks before the invasion. It begins: ‘1. The war can only be continued if the entire armed forces are fed from Russia during the third year of the war. 2. As a result, there is no doubt that “x” million people [zig Millionen Menschen] will starve to death if we take out from the country whatever we need.’ It was written by Herbert Backe, state secretary of the Reich Ministry for Food and Agriculture. While the memo left the number of victims blank, Backe’s arithmetic suggested that the entire urban population of the European Soviet Union – thirty million ‘surplus eaters’ – should be starved to death.

The Hungerplan, to give it its German proper name, began with the forcible starving of Soviet prisoners of war. Crowded into vast camps without any shelter, 1.3 million died in the four months after the invasion. About 2.5 million had died this way by the end of the war. But the Hungerplan proved impossible to implement fully. Starving people in large numbers is extremely hard work. Stalin’s administration of famine in Ukraine a decade earlier had called on the entire apparatus of the Communist Party, and the German invaders had no such infrastructure. They besieged Leningrad, where a million died. In the occupied cities of Kiev and Kharkov they restricted food supplies and similar numbers perished. But the peasants, who had honed their survival skills in two post-1917 famines, didn’t succumb easily. German soldiers also relied on locally grown food, and so Backe’s office ordered that peasants be permitted to carry on producing crops. The hunger planners fell short of their original target by more than twenty million.

Even at this reduced scale, the Hungerplan was a crime comparable in numerical terms to the Final Solution. Indeed, forced starvation was one of the instruments of the Holocaust. Eighty thousand Jews starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 to December 1943, testifying before the Nuremberg Tribunal, estimated that ‘in the camp of Auschwitz alone in that time 2,500,000 persons were exterminated and that a further 500,000 died from disease and starvation.’ In The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food Lizzie Collingham makes the point that the failure to starve ‘useless eaters’ in sufficient numbers, sufficiently quickly, became a rationale for expediting their mass murder by killing squads and gas chambers.

Backe was interrogated but by the time the Ministries Trial began in 1947, he had committed suicide, fearing he would be handed over to the Soviets. His predecessor as minister for food and agriculture, Walther Darré, an ideologue of ‘blood and soil’ and aggressive eastward expansion, was found guilty of plunder and despoliation, and sentenced to seven years in prison but released after two. Though Backe’s memo was produced as evidence, the Hungerplan was not mentioned by name. The Allies were in no hurry to criminalise famine or economic warfare.

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. In the post-Nuremberg High Command Trial, American prosecutors brought charges against Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb for crimes committed during the siege of Leningrad. But there was no legal basis on which to find Leeb guilty of starving the city, or even of sustaining the pressure of hunger on the residents by firing at civilians trying to leave. The judges found Leeb’s orders extreme but not criminal, though they added that they wished the law were otherwise. They cited the Lieber Code – drawn up for the Union army in the American Civil War – which permitted starvation if it hastened military victory. In October 1948, Leeb was sentenced to time served, for transmitting the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order, and released.

By the time of the war crimes trials, the British navy was already a seasoned exponent of maritime bockade. 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 – an episode that resulted in the foundation of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, now known as Oxfam. 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.

The Nuremberg Charter didn’t (despite Lemkin’s urging) make genocide an indictable offence, but it did include ‘crimes against humanity’. Starvation-related prosecutions were possible under Article 6, which classed ‘inhumane acts’, ‘extermination’ and ‘persecution’ as ‘crimes against humanity’. There’s a rationale for this: depriving someone of food can be a form of torture, an infliction of suffering pure and simple or with some ulterior goal in mind (such as forcing hungry persons to abandon their villages). Had the drafters of the charter made starvation a crime in its own right, there would have been uncomfortable implications for the Allies, given their own use of blockades. The final judgments at Nuremberg use the term ‘starvation’, but it is ancillary to the wider crimes committed by the Nazi leadership.

There are extraordinary evidentiary problems in prosecuting cases of starvation as murder (or extermination). Only in the case of prisoners, where the victims and their food supplies are entirely controlled by the jailer, can there be proof beyond reasonable doubt that the perpetrator is responsible for the death of the victim. In other instances, the defence could argue that the victim failed to avail himself of opportunities to find food or that he might have survived were it not for other factors over which the defendant had no control, such as crop failures, high food prices, or infectious disease. Yet no charges were brought at Nuremberg for the killing by forced starvation of millions of prisoners of war.

In 1991, I tried to persuade the Ethiopian special prosecutor to press famine-related charges against the officials of the just deposed military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Although the incoming government of former guerrillas from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front was sympathetic (their own monument to the martyrs of the struggle in Mekele shows the starving alongside other victims of war), the prosecutor wouldn’t consider setting such a precedent. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia didn’t prosecute General Stanislav Galić, who supervised the siege of Sarajevo, for causing starvation on the grounds that while people had gone hungry, no Sarajevan had actually died of hunger. The best opportunity for specifying starvation as a crime arose with the court set up to try the Khmer Rouge leadership. More than a million Cambodians died from starvation, but the prosecutors took the same route as their predecessors at Nuremberg and folded famine-related crimes within other charges.

In 1977, the International Committee of the Red Cross argued successfully for the new provisions to be added to the Geneva Conventions of 1949: Article 54 of Protocol I states that ‘starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.’ This is a bold statement of humanitarian law, but its application is limited. First, it obtains only in international conflicts, not in civil wars. And second, as the legal scholar David Marcus pointed out, the obligation on warring parties to permit relief aid ‘retreats in the face of the military necessity of blockade’. 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.

The reluctance to acknowledge famine crimes seemed to matter less as long as famines were becoming rarer and less lethal. Other measures, legal, humanitarian and political, would suffice. And because acts of starvation are invariably associated with other war crimes or crimes against humanity, outlawing and prosecuting acts that were already prohibited was a way of discouraging the use of famine. Once again, following the Nuremberg model, judges in international tribunals repeatedly expressed their abhorrence of starvation being used as a tactic, and found defendants guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity that overlapped with faminogenesis – Marcus’s term for creating or compounding famine.

From the 1980s, international relief operations expanded hugely. For a relief worker in the field, the priority is getting assistance to the hungry: documenting and exposing the crimes that gave rise to the hunger are more than a distraction: they can be an obstacle. In 1988, at the beginning of the civil war in Sudan, thousands of southern Sudanese were dying in camps for displaced persons controlled by pro-government militia along the north-south internal border, with the worst death rates in the small town of Abyei. I argued with a relief worker about the need to condemn the army officers who were responsible for this. ‘I would sup with the devil to get food to Abyei,’ he said. The following year, James Grant, then head of Unicef, accepted a dinner invitation from General Fadallah Burma Nasir, co-ordinator of what was called the ‘militia policy’. Grant left the dinner with a life-saving agreement: Operation Lifeline Sudan was the first ever UN relief effort to cross civil war battle lines. In my book Famine Crimes, published twenty years ago, I excoriated the humanitarians for neglecting – and therefore perpetuating – the political and military causes of famine, but there is much to be said for Grant’s decision to meet immediate needs and turn a blind eye to their causes.

The success – and eventual thwarting – of apolitical humanitarianism was most starkly evident under George W. Bush. Campaigning in New Hampshire in 2000, Bush promised he would never use the denial of food as an instrument of foreign policy. He picked Andrew Natsios as his administrator of USAID: a figure with extensive experience both in official disaster assistance and as vice president of the aid agency World Vision. A few years earlier, Natsios had taken a controversial stand in favour of aiding North Korea during that country’s famine, on the grounds that it was morally right for the US to send aid to feed the hungry and might also make good political sense. When he took office, he called USAID’s senior staff together and told them to be alert to the danger signs of famine, and always to make its prevention a priority. In one of the most significant and under-acknowledged actions of his tenure, he authorised aid to Darfur in September 2003, six months before the humanitarian crisis there became a public scandal. Loudly attacked by the Save Darfur Coalition for his pragmatism and reluctance to describe Darfur as genocide, Natsios did more to save Darfurian lives than all his critics put together.

The Bush administration provides a vivid illustration of the fact that a political commitment to prevent famine can yield results. But the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq were even more compelling demonstrations that starvation has a promising future when the norms of liberal internationalism are violated. Each of today’s famines results in part from the Bush-Cheney doctrine that national security and counter-terrorism take precedence over all other considerations. This doctrine assumes that relief aid will go to feed insurgents, or enable them to legitimise their rule over captive populations. At the same time, those groups regard Western aid as an enemy weapon that will undermine their standing with local communities – there’s some truth in this – or as a tool of espionage. The presumption that relief supplies and relief workers are neutral: that they operate in what they refer to as a ‘humanitarian space’, is vanishing. That much is evident in the Nigerian war on Boko Haram and in the Saudi-Emirati onslaught on Yemen. Somalia hasn’t recovered from the devastation of the 2011 famine, in which the precepts of counter-terrorism meant that a humanitarian response wasn’t possible until it was too late. South Sudan owes its independence, in a roundabout way, to the support extended during the 1990s to the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) by the Clinton administration, with the express intention of creating a new state with a ‘regime that will not let Khartoum become a viper’s nest for terrorist activities’. The SPLA leadership took this to mean that they were entitled to become a member of the club of nations but didn’t need to abide by its rules – as long as they enjoyed the status of victims, and remained enemies of the Islamists in Khartoum.

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.[†] ‘I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with the NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team,’ Colin Powell announced seven weeks after 9/11. Powell’s message was not lost on militant jihadis, who deliberately blurred the distinction between intelligence agencies and aid agencies in their clampdown on foreign relief.

Counter-humanitarianism has several motivations. Extremist groups such as Isis and al-Shabaab reject Western aid. Some regimes decide to ignore humanitarian concerns and prioritise national security, as Assad has done in Syria, or the Saudis with their blockade of Yemen. The legal and moral exceptionalism counter-terrorism’s proponents have granted themselves is a further version of this. Xenophobia is another: famine prevention is based on the now jeopardised notion that the poor, strangers and outsiders are just as worthy of assistance as friends and familiars.

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: the biggest demographic outcome of famine has always been migration – the Gulf countries are learning this lesson, as millions of Yemenis cross their borders. The threat to the values of the humanitarians coincides with dramatic demands on their knowledge and skills. Their best strategy is to take the initiative and propose that starvation be added to the list of crimes against humanity.

[*] Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12 by Daniel Maxwell and Nisar Majid (Hurst, 224 pp., £22, March 2016, 978 1 84904 575 9).

[†] Zed, 320 pp., £12.99, May 2016, 978 1 78360 122 6.