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Hunger: both a cause and a consequence of genocide

We are experiencing the onslaught of extraordinary heat waves, droughts, storms, fires, and floods that cause unmitigated and prolonged scarcities of food and water all over the world.

Indigenous people of the Ixil region holding a vigil on September 26, 2018, outside a courtroom during the trial of former military intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Indigenous people of the Ixil region holding a vigil on September 26, 2018, outside a courtroom during the trial of former military intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

When I hear the word “genocide,” I see images of walking skeletons in Nazi concentration camps, bloated bodies floating down Rwanda’s rivers, mass graves being exhumed in Guatemala.

Every genocide is unique in its horrors and its tragedies, but many genocides share some precipitating factors. One of the most common and disturbing is a pre-genocide population of hungry and malnourished people.

By the end of World War I, an estimated 763,000 Germans had died from malnutrition. Germany had lost 13 percent of its territory, the defeated German population was starving, and food self-sufficiency was threatened.

In the interwar years, 1918-1933, Germany reached 80 percent self-sufficiency in basic foods such as grains, potatoes, meat, and sugar. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis emphasized greater self-reliance and discouraged consumption of white bread, meat, and butter, which were largely imported, and focused German diets on local products: brown bread made from German flour, potatoes, and quark, a milk product formerly used for animal feed. According to reports, German meat consumption dropped by 17 percent, milk by 21 percent, and eggs by 48 percent between 1927 and 1937. The population, especially in urban centers, became chronically undernourished from a lack of protein.

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In February 1939, Hitler told officers that food and adequate arable land were Germany’s most urgent problem. According to historian Adam Tooze, in 1937, farmers in Germany tilled an average of 5.2 acres each compared to 6.9 acres for each French farmer, 9.4 acres for each British farmer, and 32 acres for each American farmer.

Nazi expansionism focused on securing “living space,” lebensraum, more land for more agricultural production, which meant expansion by conquest.

We know the outcome: Nazi occupation, war, and 75 million people dead, 20 million of them dead from starvation.

Hunger is both a cause and a consequence of genocide.

Fifty years later, the population of Rwanda, a small, poor, landlocked, overcrowded country, turned upon itself, and close to a million people were slaughtered by their friends, neighbors, co-workers, even relatives, in less than a hundred days. Why?

Nearly 90 percent of Rwandans were subsistence farmers, but only 40 percent of the land was arable. The population had grown significantly in recent decades, and most farmers could barely provide for themselves and their families. There were severe droughts in 1984, 1988, and 1989, a sharp drop in world market prices for coffee and tea (the export crops for foreign exchange), and limits on government spending imposed by the World Bank.

To subsist above famine level, people must consume more than 1,600 calories a day. In 1982, 9 percent of Rwandans were below famine level in caloric consumption; by 1990, in response to the unprecedented droughts, 40 percent; and by 1994, well over half the population was starving. And in 1994 this hungry, angry, poor population was able to be incited and polarized against one another with overwhelmingly tragic results.

In our own hemisphere, the medical journal The Lancet reports that up to 90 percent of children in Guatemala today suffer from malnutrition: both from marasmus, which is the wasting away from insufficient caloric intake, and from kwashiorkor, insufficient protein intake that stunts both physical growth and mental development.

The Guatemalan people affected by malnutrition are largely the Indigenous Mayan communities, who have twice the rates of stunting of the non-Indigenous population. The Lancet reports, “Most of the hunger hotspots also track with the places in which the civil war was most fierce, like the province of Quiché in the highlands. This was not by mistake.”

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Guatemala’s genocide toll over the 36-year civil war was more than 200,000 lives, 80 percent of them from starvation and murder of the Indigenous populations.

Hunger kills.

Two weeks ago, a panel of lawyers and human rights experts defined a new crime that they hope will enter the list of the world’s most egregious offenses: ecocide. They expect that it will stand with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression as the most heinous of acts that can be perpetrated against large numbers of innocent people.

Their definition: “Unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

We are experiencing the onslaught of extraordinary heat waves, droughts, storms, fires, and floods that cause unmitigated and prolonged scarcities of food and water all over the world. People are dying in the hundreds and in the thousands; infrastructures and habitats are being destroyed; and national security is under threat.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Genocides will become more frequent if we cannot limit the dangers of climate emergencies.

France, Canada, and the European Parliament’s environment committee support recognition of ecocide in international law, an idea first proposed in 1972 by then-Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. Belgium, Spain, Finland, Vanuatu, and the Maldives also support it.

The goal is to have ecocide added into the Rome Statute, the foundational document of the International Criminal Court, the world’s only permanent court adjudicating these gravest of all human crimes.

The western half of the country is burning up. Hurricanes are forming in the southeast. Buildings are collapsing. The time is now — because ecocide triggers hunger and genocide.

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World Without Genocide is holding a webinar on Wednesday, July 14, 7-9 p.m. CDT, titled “Genocide, Climate, Cobalt, and Human Rights,” featuring Holocaust and genocide scholar Alex Alvarez; Terrence Collingsworth, lawyer at International Rights Advocates; and Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The program is open to the public; registration is required by July 13. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, $25 Minnesota lawyers for two “elimination of bias” CLE credits (pending), free to Mitchell Hamline students.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

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