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A Massacre in Slow Motion

Alex de Waal, interviewed by Daniel Drake

Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


Last month, the United Nations Security Council held a briefing on famine during war, pursuant to Resolution 2417, adopted in 2018, which in part addresses “the need to break the vicious cycle between armed conflict and food insecurity.” Four days earlier the Review published “The Vanishing Point of the Laws of War” by Alex de Waal, who argues that modern famines are preventable disasters, the result of deliberate strategies used by belligerent armed forces to starve civilians and weaken opponents—and that the United States and United Nations are doing little to stop them.

De Waal is a human rights researcher and activist, and currently the director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. He was chairperson of the Mines Advisory Group in 1997 when, as part of the coalition that made up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; he is also the author of more than a dozen books about, among other subjects, the war and atrocities in Darfur, crisis in the Horn of Africa, the history and future of famine, and, most recently, the politics of pandemics.

This week I interviewed de Waal about famine, the current blockade of the Black Sea by Russia, and the possibilities and limitations of world government.


Daniel Drake: How did your career in international human rights get started? You wrote about famine in Darfur when you were in college—what first motivated you to investigate and research starvation and related war crimes?

Alex de Waal: By way of prelude, I grew up in the shadow of refugeehood. My father and his family were driven from Austria by the Nazis in 1938. I only learned later that two generations before that, my great-great-grandfather Ignace von Ephrussi had left Odessa, correctly fearing pogroms against the Jews. At that time, the Ephrussis were the largest grain traders in Europe.

When I was a student at Oxford in the early 1980s, the world’s intellectual center for the study of refugees was the University of Khartoum. Curious as it might appear forty years later, the flow of intellectual capital in humanitarian studies was from Sudan to Oxford, not the other way around. Graduate students wanting to write their dissertations in this emerging field beat a path to Sudan. I was one of them. I planned to study refugees and migrants, but when I arrived in Darfur for fieldwork, my plans were overtaken by the reality of the famine unfolding at the time.

The Darfur famine of 1984–1985 was a throwback to an older kind of agrarian famine, set off by harvest failure (due to drought) on top of economic neglect. My main finding was that farmers and nomads had an array of “survival strategies”—gathering wild foods in the forests or finding seasonal labor—that were even more important than relief aid. What I didn’t anticipate was the long-term damage that hunger would do to the social fabric of Sudan, setting Darfur on the path to war and massacre.

Just after I completed my thesis, in 1988, another famine unfolded in Sudan. People forcibly displaced by civil war were confined to camps by the Sudanese army and militia and prevented from following their usual survival strategies. Over the summer, the death rates in those camps were forty times higher than they had been in Darfur three years earlier. That was a shocking contrast: these people weren’t just starving, they were being starved. It was a massacre in slow motion.

A few months later I took a job as the Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch, and I focused on how conflict created famine. My report for them was the first in a long series on this topic—the final column by its long-standing director, Kenneth Roth, before he retired last month was on the war crime of starvation in Ethiopia. My second book, Famine Crimes, began as a series of commentaries I wrote for HRW.

If I understand your essay, you argue that there are two problems with international law as it relates to famine: some of the methods that cause famines—blockades, sanctions—are not themselves outlawed, and even when violations are found to have been committed, the law is often enforced, as in Iraq in the 1990s, with further sanctions. Aside from prosecuting perpetrators after the fact, what options does the UN have to enforce any regulations designed to prevent belligerent parties from starving civilians?

That’s absolutely correct. The prohibitions in international humanitarian law only focus on the kinds of actions that an army fighting on land might undertake—destroying, removing, or rendering useless “objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population.” Methods such as blockades and shutting down banking systems are regulated, rather than prohibited, and thereby legitimized. Not every lawyer will agree! But the fact is that—even when the law is clearest in banning certain actions—we don’t really know the force of these prohibitions until a case is brought to court, which hasn’t yet happened.

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Another problem is that attention quickly shifts from stopping the act of starvation to aiding its victims. Delivering relief to the hungry is a matter of budgets, logistics, and monitoring—and aid programming is complicated by insecurity. This means that those intent on enforcing a siege can conceal crimes under logistical problems. The rights of starving people are smothered in the minutiae of aid management.

The biggest problem, as you indicate, lurks in weak enforcement. The laws of war are no stronger than the moral pressure to comply with them. The real success that the world’s humanitarians have had in limiting the use of chemical weapons, land mines, and rape as weapons of war is due in large part to the outrage against them. Weaponized hunger will end when it’s seen as morally toxic in the same way.

What’s crucial about UN Security Council Resolution 2417 on armed conflict and hunger isn’t the law (there’s nothing new) but the political profile that outlawing starvation as a weapon has achieved. That’s why it’s so depressing to see that in the debate on 2417 on September 15, the UN and representatives of national governments assiduously skirted the question of criminal accountability, instead treating armed conflict like bad weather.

Much of the history of twentieth-century famines (and attempts to curb them) that you describe in your essay turns on the ability of the UN to serve as an international arbiter of disputes. For decades—since at least 1965—observers have worried that the UN is about to implode or that it has marginal influence over world affairs. Do you think the UN, or a version of a world-governing body like the UN, is ultimately the best hope for preventing the kind of catastrophes you describe? Would you propose any particular reforms to the UN as it currently operates, or is its effectiveness too dependent on how seriously the major powers take its regulations?

The UN is flawed, but it’s the best such thing we have. What I find most disappointing—at least on this topic—is that Secretary-General António Guterres has timidly underplayed his moral hand. Instead of articulating norms and principles, he chose to preemptively cave in to the objections of member states. It is striking that authoritarian states do seem to care about world opinion, especially when expressed at the UN. That’s why Russia and China go to such lengths to manipulate the Security Council’s agenda and public statements—the tribute that realpolitik pays to principle, if you like.

Resolution 2417 requires the secretary-general to swiftly bring any case in which armed conflict threatens to cause widespread food insecurity to the attention of the Security Council. Last month’s discussion on starvation in Tigray was twenty-two months after the first warnings—hardly “swift.”

The African Union is a starker case. In the 1990s, staring collectively into the abyss of genocide, war, and military coups, African leaders agreed on a set of norms and principles for renewing their continent. Uniquely among interstate organizations, the AU started life as an assembly of activists—a group of agitators and fighters for freedom who called themselves the Pan-African Congress—and that’s still the well of its legitimacy. The AU has no enforcement capacity. Its successes are achieved through peer pressure to reject military coups and submit armed conflicts to mediation. But in the last few years, it has relapsed into a club of heads of state anxious to defend their sovereign privileges.

Is there a realistic prospect for a prosecution of starvation as a war crime?

The Russian forces in Ukraine have without doubt used starvation as a weapon of war. Their siege of Mariupol (and some other locations) undoubtedly meets the evidentiary and legal criteria of intentionally denying objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population—food, water, shelter, medicine. The way the law is framed, they don’t have to cause famine for the prohibition to apply, they just need to intend to deprive. With the high international interest in investigating war crimes in Ukraine, as well as the fact that it’s an international armed conflict (for which the law is better established) that took place on the soil of a country where the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction, there is at last a significant chance of prosecuting some of the men responsible for this heinous crime. I would welcome it.

I sometimes struggle to imagine how rules and conventions designed to prevent atrocities can hold up in the face of the violent imperatives of war. What might account for Secretary-General Guterres’s successes in convincing Putin to end the blockade of the Black Sea?

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I think that the Black Sea Grain Initiative is a fine illustration of how norms, institutions, and the politics of global public opinion can come together. Russia cares that middle- and low-income countries were blaming its invasion of Ukraine for the global food crisis. Russian diplomats know they’re not innocent of the world food crisis—but they can still score the occasional point. Speaking at the Security Council, Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pointed out that the five situations of extreme hunger in the world were on the Council’s agenda well before the Ukraine war. He also noted that most Ukrainian exports are non–food grade cereals for European livestock, and only a small percentage is aid for the hungriest nations. And of course he didn’t miss the opportunity to criticize Western sanctions on Russia. He didn’t mention that fertilizer exports are exempt from sanctions, but we must nonetheless face the question: When do financial sanctions cross the threshold from punishing a government to inflicting life-threatening hardship on a people?

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