By Wayne Jordash QC and Catriona Murdoch*
The ‘F’ word is back in use, famines have returned. In 2017 the UN identified four situations of acute food insecurity that threatened famine or breached that threshold, in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. In December 2018 famine was formally declared across regions of Yemen. Starvation is also being used as a weapon of war in Syria. We have also seen how food and humanitarian aid is being manipulated, obstructed and politicised in the Gaza Strip and in Venezuela.
Starvation Crimes – an umbrella term coined by Alex de Waal to encompass a range of (non-exhaustive) criminal conduct intended to deprive people of items necessary for sustaining human life – are at the heart of the problem. Every instance of famine or acute food insecurity today is at its core man-made and this criminal and reckless behaviour is responsible for widespread and systematic death, injury and suffering worldwide. As 2019 begins and the number of victims spirals into the millions, we must urgently address how we can strengthen our collective response to deter such conduct.
The current and collective scale of suffering and death as a result of these crimes is unprecedented in modern history: Yemen alone promises to be the most severe famine in living memory. Yet recognition of the deliberate nature of famine, attribution of fault and accountability remains elusive. We at the start of a long road to criminalise starvation in a way that properly recognises the causes, identifies the culprits and correctly labels their crimes. Despite the birth of modern international criminal law over the last 25 years, there has been a dearth of prosecutions for starvation crimes.
As we have seen with all kinds of international crimes, the relevant conduct needs to move beyond the confines of the battlefield and the classroom and into the courtroom. Then the relevant law may be identified, clarified, codified and developed so that a belligerent warlord or a government supplying arms used to starve become fearful of its reach. Continue reading