Famine as a weapon

An expert on African affairs calls for prosecution

‘First, you need a flood or a drought. Add a conflict to the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster.’

Famine as a military strategy has made a comeback, according to British professor Alex de Waal. “This is not a natural disaster; it’s the consequence of human actions.”

By Vincent Bongers “Don’t be fooled by pictures of starving children in a dusty desert in Yemen”, says Alex de Waal. “The fact that those children have nothing to eat has nothing to do with extreme drought. The children’s hunger is the direct result of the actions of Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose most effective weapon is the lack of food in Yemen: they have the country in a stranglehold. The Saudis want to subdue the Houthi rebels and will not allow the deaths of a million famine victims to get in their way, so this odious strategy was recently revived.” 

De Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in the United States and author of Mass Starvation, visited Leiden University a while ago to give a lecture at The Hague’s Wijnhaven Building. They are starving the Yemenites in an extremely devious way, he explains. “Yemen imports eighty per cent of its food and a large part of it arrives at the port of al-Hudaida, but ships from the American and British navies are blocking the port at the Saudis’ request and with the approval of the UN Security Council. In theory, they allow food through, but the extensive inspections cause very long delays. The Saudis have bombed the container port into oblivion, so unloading is very slow too.

“On the other side, the Houthi are causing problems with their own blockades. Added to which, no one has any money to buy food, which has skyrocketed in price, and, therefore, seven million Yemenites are in danger of starving to death and the West is allowing it to happen. And to think that things were actually improving in the last decades”, sighs De Waal. “In the last twenty to thirty years, such famines hardly occurred anymore.

"A combination of three or four factors will produce a famine. First, you need extreme drought, or, conversely, a flood. If a military or administrative conflict is added to the mix and food prices soar, you have a recipe for disaster. The most influential force in such circumstances are the decisions made by governors, politicians and the army. If someone dies of hunger, you can assume that someone else wants them to. The fact that famine is making a comeback can be attributed to human intervention. We can see the same thing happening in Syria and Somalia and we need to prevent this comeback.”

According to De Waal, the impact of climate change is not the decisive factor in the increase in famine. “More extreme weather is causing additional problems, but remember: no rain does not automatically mean that a fatal food shortage will follow. Last year, both Ethiopia and Somalia suffered droughts. In Somalia, the drought resulted in a famine while in the neighbouring country, Ethiopia, it was avoided because the government and aid organisations intervened effectively.” 

Back in 2011, many people in Somalia died following a drought too. “That was partly because of the Patriot Act, the American government’s anti-terrorism Act, under which any form of collaboration with a terrorist group is a punishable offence. It applied to the Islamic extremist group Al Shabaab in Somalia too, of course. In fact, the Red Cross could be prosecuted even if Al Shabaab stole a food truck, so gradually, aid dried up. It took nine months to find a solution, by which time 260,000 Somalis had died. The war-on-terror policy was more important than helping people, which is unethical. Governments should pay much more attention to the impact of their policies on the rest of the world.

What does he think needs to be done? “We need to prosecute the perpetrators. It’s difficult, but a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court of The Hague should find it appealing to be the first to take on someone who is suspected of death by starvation. Rape is another weapon used in wars and it was a long time before soldiers were prosecuted for rape, but because activists and journalists kept calling the public’s attention to it, so it eventually happened. The same thing could happen for famine.”

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Famine as a weapon

Famine as a military strategy has made a comeback, according to British professor Alex de …