Consider China's Great Famine of 1959. If you want to give Chairman Mao the benefit of the doubt, you could argue that the disaster was the result of gross negligence and an ideology that put little value on an individual life rather than a deliberate and direct attempt to murder millions. But in any case, the disaster was Mao's doing. Economists Xin Meng, Nancy Qian and Pierre Yared have found that regions of China with higher per capita food production in the year of the famine suffered higher mortality rates -- which means that central planners were taking far too much food from places where it was needed. Similarly, the 1984 Ethiopian famine that prompted the launch of Live Aid involved a drought, but was exacerbated by government policies of enforced collectivization, grain confiscation, and taxation. And the provinces of Wollo, Tigray, and now-independent Eritrea, where the famine was centered, were also home to separatist movements -- they were victims of an intentional policy of using famine as a weapon of war.
Somalia is shaping up to be yet another case study of mass starvation as an intentional act of governance. It is true that the country is burdened with an official government whose remit extends only a short distance from the capital, a long-running drought, poverty, limited local supplies of food, and logistical factors that complicate imports from elsewhere, not least the near-total destruction of the country's infrastructure by 20-odd years of civil war. And as a result, local cereal prices are more than 2 to 3 times what they were in 2010 in some areas. Ed Carr noted this month that there are "no real jobs to earn money to buy imported food, and the livestock are dying, meaning livestock owners cannot sell them off for food." But Carr also hints at another problem: "we cannot get in to these areas with our aid." That is why, despite similar drought conditions in parts of neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya "famine stops at the Somali border."
To be more geographically specific, famine is concentrated in areas of the country under the control of al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, which is refusing to let in relief convoys. In a reversal from statements earlier in the month that suggested some aid agencies would be allowed to respond to the drought, a spokesman for al-Shabab has declared that reports of famine are "sheer propaganda" and banned ad groups that it claims are "purely political." Even were al-Shabab officials to re-authorize large-scale NGO operations (and the Red Cross does appear to have some access in this regard), agencies would be understandably skittish about venturing back to a region where 42 aid workers were killed in 2008 and 2009. Those with longer memories will recall that the U.S. intervention in Somalia under President George H.W. Bush that ended with Blackhawk Down began as a food aid mission. One wonders what the response of a gun-touting teen would be to the appearance of a Toyota Land Cruiser with U.N. insignia, which he has been told is the steed of the devil. (And one wonders what will be the reaction of donors when, in six months time, some of the Land Cruisers they donated reappear, topped with machine guns firing at U.N. troops in Mogadishu.)
If widespread famine now only occurs after the deliberate acts of leadership create the conditions for starvation, what should be the international response? In a 2003 article in the American Journal of International Law, lawyer David Marcus argued that famine could constitute a crime against humanity. European Parliamentarians have set a precedent by recognizing the Ukrainian famine of 1932 -- in which Stalin's government forced grain removals and forbade movement in a way that guaranteed widespread starvation -- as such. And most famines of the more recent past fit that description very well. That suggests it should become standard practice for the ICC to issue warrants for the arrest of leaders of regions or countries where mass starvation occurs.
Of course, because in the modern world local food shortages only cause widespread famine in places under the leadership of the criminal or insane, aid agencies trying to help will necessarily find themselves in the moral quagmire of negotiating access with the very people who are abetting the crisis in the first place. And that complicates the international response to famine crimes. Take the related case of Bashir's Sudan: In 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for him based on evidence of crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. At the time, some commentators warned that the warrant would make negotiating with Bashir over access for humanitarian relief in the region all the more complex.
But in the case of al-Shabab such concerns appear less pressing. As the group is widely recognized as a terror organization, with its high-ranking officers already targets of U.S. drone strikes, it hardly seems likely that the international community has much to lose here. So now would be as good a time as any to set a precedent with a U.N. Security Council referral of al-Shabab's leadership to the ICC, on the grounds of crimes against humanity by method of mass starvation. That would make clear the international community fully understands that famine is not an act of God, but an act of mass murder.