Famine = Genocide? Not Quite.

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, such as: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The above definition comes from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified on 9 December 1948 and enacted into international law on 12 January 1951. 140 countries have ratified or signed onto the agreement, making this the legal and most widely accepted definition of genocide. Traditionally, we view genocide as the brutally violent and systematic execution of an entire group of people based solely on that group’s identity, like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. But the term has also been used more leisurely. One group has even gone so far as to say that abortion is modern-day genocide. (Last time I checked, no one wants to exterminate the entire human race).

Today, the Kansas City Star ran a commentary piece by Ben Barber, who argues that the present situation in Somalia is genocide. The crux of his argument is that al-Shabaab is committing genocide against the victims of the famine by preventing their access to food aid and their movement from famine affected areas

The death of every person due to denial of aid and to denial of the right to flee from famine is the equivalent of genocide.

Barber argues that three groups in particular are preventing the international community from admitting that al-Shabaab is committing “acts of genocide”. He blames survivors of genocide because they “fear that the impact of their suffering will be diluted.” Actually, I am most inclined to agree with the genocide victims here. The flippant use of the term genocide does dilute the impact of the term and is disrespectful to those who have actually endured a real genocide.

Secondly, Barber blames the US and other governments for not wanting to intervene per the Convention’s requirements. In the same line, he admits the flaw in this argument – the international community has used the term genocide before without intervention (i.e. Darfur).

Lastly, he argues that “African and Muslim leaders” are worried about being re-branded as “primitive barbarians”. All I can say to this last point is – WTF? How could anyone take this comment seriously?

Barber is simply wrong in his claim that Somalia is experiencing genocide. Let’s take a look at the definition again, this time within the context of Somali famine meets Islamic terrorist group. Here the victim “group” consists of Somalis who are suffering from famine. The accused are members of the organization al-Shabab.

  1. Al-Shabaab has killed members of the group
  2. Al-Shabaab has caused serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  3. Al-Shabaab has deliberately inflicted conditions that could bring about physical destruction in part
  4. So far, al-Shabaab has not deliberately imposed measures to prevent births within the group
  5. So far, al-Shabaab has not forcibly transferred children from the group to another group

Just taking into account this part of the definition, it would appear that Barber’s argument fits within the legal definition of genocide. However, as is much neglected by the careless “boys who cry genocide”, the beginning of the definition is key. There must be a clear intent to destroy in whole or in part a particular group. Genocide is just as much about the act as it is the intent. So far, there is no indication that al-Shabab has the intent to destroy in whole or in part Somalis affected by famine based solely on the fact that they are starving.

If we scream genocide every time one group of people does something inhumane to another group of people – when would we ever stop intervening? What meaning would the term even have anymore? Barber’s commentary would lead us down a dangerous path full of stereotypes, racism (primitive barbarians, really?), and ignorance.

Genocide is the most extreme form of racism or xenophobia. Last time I checked, al-Shabaab’s mission doesn’t include the complete destruction of all famine victims. They don’t have some undying hatred for the starving. Their present actions are based on political/terrorist motives. What they are doing could definitely be seen as a crime against humanity. But their intent is not genocidal. It’s purely political.


4 Replies to “Famine = Genocide? Not Quite.”

  1. Thanks for the blog post.

    You have to like any article that relies on clichés about colonialism, Chamberlin’s “Peace in our time Speech,” the Barbary pirate campaign, and genocide as its primary arguments. I also cherish any blog post that brings light to my favorite large “dead baby” posters—you really can see them from hundreds of yards away.

    But I do wonder if genocide or not, intervention is warranted against al-Shabab. I particularly don’t like Barber’s assumption that Americans will not tolerate another “African conflict.” Perhaps that should have read “conflict” in general. I have just not seen anything to convince me that the majority of America’s care one way or another—it is increasingly rare it is their kids doing the dying. Maybe there is some piece of political science research that suggests otherwise.

    Barber’s point on needing to end the evil of piracy is also interesting, as this appears to be more of an economic issue than a political one.

    To your points:
    Would a more general war on Al-Shabbab by the AU be warranted? (BTW his comments on allowing Saudi’s to do the intervention seems kinda like Barber has lost a few marbels). It appears that Barber’s piece was written before the withdraw of Al-Shabbab from Mogadishu. Does that withdraw change anything?
    To your question, “If we scream genocide every time one group of people does something inhumane to another group of people – when would we ever stop intervening?”

    Maybe we (some part of the humane world) should intervene against any act of inhumanity/ try to limit our own acts of inhumanity as often as possible. So I don’t think we can ever stop intervening, nor should we. The bigger question seems to be who “we” should be. I feel a far more expansive definition of this would be helpful.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog, enjoy the commentary you keep running. And Barber should give us all hope that one day we too can get paid for our writing if his attempt is all it takes.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As to your questions:

    Would a more general war on al-Shabaab by the AU be warranted?
    First, I’m no expert on the Somali conflict, as most of my research has been on the Great Lakes region and southern Africa. However, based on my limited knowledge of the situation and previous interventions in Africa, I strongly support a more integrated fight against al-Shabaab from the AU, as opposed to outside intervention.

    Does al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu change anything?
    I don’t foresee much change after al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu, or in light of the Transitional Federal Government’s offer of amnesty. There might be a decrease in violence, but overall al-Shabaab’s activity might increase. Most of the areas designated as famine are outside of the capital. While al-Shabaab was withdrawing from Mogadishu, they were simultaneously declaring a new offensive against the government. Their withdrawal should not be seen as a victory or as a sign of coming peace. Strategically, al-Shabaab has an incentive to focus on the famine conditions and preventing the flow of food aid. This will not only help to bankroll their operations, but will help them continue their campaign of terror – thus putting more pressure on the government without having to engage in direct confrontation. Today, the AU commander in Mogadishu actually requested another 3000 troops to help stabilize the capital and fight against guerilla attacks from al-Shabaab.

    When do we stop intervening?
    I appreciate your comments here. I both agree and disagree. Definitely the scope of what is considered “we” in the international community needs to be enlarged. In a case of genocide or atrocity, the decision to intervene should be made by the rest of the international community and/or a collection of other states within the region. “We” should no longer simply mean the West. Interventions are best waged by other regional armies. Logistically and politically this makes sense. At the same time, I have to disagree about always intervening. Intervening too often can lead to moral hazard, whereby groups exacerbate the problem publically to gain international attention/intervention that will assist with their cause – see Alan Kuperman’s book, Limits of Humanitarian Intervention.

  3. I have not read Kuperman’s book (on the amazon wish list now), but I’d like to hit back on the moral hazard bit. Doesn’t that argument seem a bit odd in an intervention, humanitarian setting? So, we assume that nations are going to not do certain things, or do other things, that exasperate a problem because they do not have to bear the risks of the negative consequences; they would have faith they would be bailed out by the international community.

    So, the proper response to this problem is only intervening occasionally, and at other times letting those in need hang out to dry, so as to keep nations leaders on their toes. It should be understood by them that they cannot rely on the international community to be there all the time, and so will be therefore more willing to take risks as leaders and/or prevent problems from arising?

    It seems this is like a cop not responding to a house break-in, because someone left their doors unlocked.

    This seems a bit cold hearted for those involved, as well as placing force in the wrong place to alter the incentives a leader has to act. It seems that as a general rule, people are in a need, they should be helped. To create incentives for leaders to act in a way that protects their constituents, might be to set something up like how the IMF acts fiscally; if we intervene on your behalf, your governance structure is now subject to certain overhauls/ if you are found neglectful you are subject to prosecution.

    I know that line of thought reeks of world governance, but I don’t see this as being a bad thing. Nor do I see it as impossibility, just a matter of power concentrations and incentives of global leaders. It is also considerably reductionist, simplistic, ect; that said, when it comes to human life, I’ve found that complications, mitigating factors, and such are just excuses to justify inaction.

    1. Here’s my take: It is a bit cold hearted on the surface level; however, we have to take a step back and look at interventions logically. Can we make things better by intervening? Can we intervene effectively? What are the long term consequences of our intervention? Can the country pull itself together without our assistance? There is no moral duty to intervene in civil conflicts, unless there are clear indications of genocide/ crimes against humanity that such an intervention can thwart. If we consider history, we see that Europe took centuries of civil war to become the post-modern states that they are today. Is war a necessary evil to achieve long-term stability and nationalism? If so, then our blind interventions could be making things worse in the long-term. There is definitely a need to establish proper protocols for deciding when and where to intervene. These should be based on rational decision-making combined with moral obligation.

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