Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman on State Food Crimes



A surprising outcome of the Commission of Inquiry process was the decision to consider possible crimes against humanity related to food. (My collaboration with Marc Noland started on precisely these issues in a paper for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, .pdf here). Since David Marcus’s important 2003 piece on “Famine Crimes in International Law” (JStor here) there have been a number of efforts to grapple with both humanitarian and human rights law on the issue, but the legal turf is not easy going. Rhoda Howard-Hassman’s book on the topic, State Food Crimes (2016) pushes the debate along.

The book combines two somewhat different efforts. The first is to describe what international law with respect to food both is and should be. The second is empirical work in a legal vein that assesses whether state food crimes—and of what magnitude—were committed in four cases: North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and the West Bank and Gaza.

International human rights and humanitarian law on food is surprisingly thin. Not until the 1999 General Comment 12 were the rights to adequate food and freedom from hunger contained in earlier human rights covenants given a more precise interpretation. The perennial dilemma—as for the very concept of human rights more generally—is the corresponding obligations associated with the right, and particularly to punish those countries or individuals responsible for violating rights to food. The genocide convention would not have held the perpetrators of the North Korean or Cambodian famines responsible since the deaths were not genocidal. Refugee law provides no help because flight from hunger, malnutrition or even famine is not protected. The one thin reed is that the Rome Statute defines “extermination” as a crime against humanity and includes under it the intentional deprivation of access to food.

What is required to make the legal case that such a threshold has been crossed? Marcus defined a first-degree food crime to have occurred when a person “knowingly creates, inflicts, or prolongs conditions that result in or contribute to the starvation of a significant number of persons.” A second-degree food crime involves “recklessly ignoring evidence that his or her policies are creating, inflicting or prolonging the starvation of a significance number of persons.” Knowledge, intent and “recklessness” are thus critical to culpability and are notoriously hard to prove.

But Howard-Hassman makes a clever link between findings on the relationship between human rights and food to push the boundaries of current legal thinking. If there is evidence—following Amartya Sen and others—that human rights and even democracy are a necessary prerequisite for guaranteeing access to food, then decisions by regimes to deny such rights constitute evidence that food crimes are in fact willful.

She uses this frame in her discussion of the particular cases, and believe it or not Zimbabwe actually comes off worse than North Korea in one particular way. The extent of the starvation was certainly not remotely comparable. Howard-Hassman shows, however, that the use of the food weapon in Zimbabwe was targeted at political opponents, suggesting a first-degree food crime. In North Korea, by contrast, her account attributes the famine primarily to recklessness. In what is likely to be a controversial treatment of the Gaza, she goes hard on the Israelis for their ultimate responsibility as occupiers. Nonetheless, she recognizes that they pour food and other necessities into Gaza on a daily basis through the Kerem Shalom border crossing while the Egyptians have hardly lifted a finger. Hamas also maintains its revolutionary tunnel-building and rocket fantasies that have almost certainly diverted resources from productive activity and consumption into war-fighting. The Chavez regime gets a lighter treatment, primarily an example of incompetence. This judgment appears to come from the fact that Chavez represented an aspiration to greater equality in a highly stratified society, even though such populism has a well-known history of ultimately producing perverse results that harm those it is designed to help. Moreover, Chavez would certainly appear to be a perfect example of a dictator who curtailed civil and political liberties precisely to avoid checks on his bombastic rule. Had he allowed a functioning opposition, it would probably have checked the continuing economic descent we are still witnessing.

Despite these quibbles, this is a really good place to start on the issue. The general legal framing that connects the issue to human rights is novel and she provides exemplary thinking-out-loud about how to measure culpability. Other useful chapters discuss the communist famines and a particularly noteworthy chapter takes up the question of democracy and famine. An interesting finding in the latter: democratic occupiers and democracies at war do not necessarily protect rights to food. Howard-Hassman provides a very interesting case study of how the allies maintained the blockade against Germany after the conclusion of World War I in order to extract a better settlement, generating widespread distress and even famine. Yet another chapter takes up the complexities of sanctions and engagement strategies, a topic near and dear to our hearts and central to understanding the North Korean case.

Witness to Transformation Posts on the Commission of Inquiry

More From

Related Topics