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Reviewed by:
  • State Food Crimes by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann
  • Michael Dobkowski
Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, State Food Crimes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. 284, paperback, $29.99 US.

Genocide and the factors that lead up to it are not inevitable; they are a political choice. But political choices including genocide are impacted by many different forces and strategies, internal and external. One of these is food deprivation and its most extreme manifestation, human induced famine, has been utilized with greater frequency in the past several decades and is the subject of Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann's excellent and important new book, State Food Crimes. She focuses on crimes committed by states that deny their own citizens and others for whom they are responsible one of the most basic of human rights, the right to food. The relationship between food deprivation and genocide is an important one both in terms of understanding the causes of genocide and in anticipating the prospects for genocide in the twenty-first century. She examines mainly crimes of commission perpetrated by states that deprive citizens of food to which they previously had access. The worst form of this policy is state induced famine, termed "faminogenesis" by David Marcus, as in two of Howard-Hassmann's case studies: North Korea in the 1990s and twenty-first century, and Zimbabwe since 2000. In the two other examples she focuses on, Venezuela since 1999 and the West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s and twenty-first century, we have states or political elites in those states deliberately neglecting to ensure that their citizens or others under their responsibility have adequate nutrition. These cases come from different parts of the world and different political systems and, with the exception of the West Bank and Gaza, are not at war.

Howard-Hassmann refers to these deprivations of food as "crimes" in both a legal and moral sense. In the most extreme cases such as state-induced famine, this clearly falls under various aspects of international law, particularly crimes against humanity under the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (1998) as well as war crimes under the Geneva Convention. One of her aims in the book is to make a case for broadening the interpretation of state food crimes that currently exists. It is also to advocate for a new international treaty on the right to food even if it is unenforceable. In Venezuela, the most controversial of her examples, where leaders Hugo Chávez until 2013 and Nicolás Maduro through 2015 probably did not intend to deprive their citizens of food but recklessly followed incompetent policies that caused food shortages, the new standard she applies and analysis she provides is suggestive and worth considering. I am not sure, however, that she adequately makes the case that incompetence, when deliberately continued, suggests not only recklessness but intentionality. And if that is the case, it is difficult to say what the legal and even moral consequences would or should be. In the West Bank and Gaza case, readers will appreciate the balanced and careful approach she employs informed by the context of decades of conflict and the security concerns faced by Israel. Blame here is shared by the occupying power Israel, Egypt, and the militant policies of Hamas. The range of her examples, however, from North Korea and its intentional policy to the recklessness of Zimbabwe, the incompetence of Venezuela and what she considers to be the indifference of Israel, is problematic. [End Page 150] Her claims about Israel are contested and in my opinion don't fit into her typology as well as the other examples.

The relationship between genocide and food deprivation fall into several general categories. Genocide typically produces extreme food shortages: it creates social chaos, disrupts the economy, destroys the lives of hundreds of thousands or even millions of persons who possess skills and productive capacities, and diverts the perpetrators themselves from being producers to destroyers. In extreme cases such as the induced famines in the Ukraine in 1932–1933 or China's Great Leap Forward in 1958–1962, economic production in large sectors of those economies ceased almost altogether and perpetrators are not...


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