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Digesting food crime: is there an appetite for prosecution?


In Episode 8 of The Rights Track, Todd talks to Professor Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, International Chair of Human Rights at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada about state food crime, what it is, where it’s happening, why she believes it should be considered an international human rights crime and the challenges around prosecuting it.

0.00-4.48

  • How Rhoda got interested in food crime. She mentions an article by David Marcus which discusses four levels of state food crime: intentional, reckless, indifference and incompetence and argues that the intentional and reckless starvation of citizens should be considered an international crime.
  • Rhoda explains how she produced a case study for each of the levels: on North Korea, Zimbabwe, Israel and Venezuela. She has also examined malnutrition in aboriginal people in Australia and Canada.
  • Discussion of the law and the legal basis for these claims. Rhoda argues that food crime should have same status as torture.
  • Existing human rights laws include the rights to be free from malnutrition as laid out in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. International Criminal Court has a clause prohibiting extermination of populations.
  • Laws have not been consolidated though and possible or likely punishments are not clear so a case has never been made.

4.48-12.55

  • Rhoda mentions the important work of the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen who argued that famine was caused by countries who did not allow political opposition, elections or freedom of the press based in part on the Great Famine in Ireland in the 19th Century.
  • In her book, State Food Crimes published by Cambridge University Press, Rhoda examines famines in countries with totalitarian regimes: Soviet Union and Ukraine in the 1930s, China in 50s and 60s and Cambodia in the 1970s. She also looked at countries where there was some level of democracy e.g. Canada (but not for aborigines) and Ireland (voting for the English but not for the Irish) and in Germany post World War 1.
  • Rhoda outlines and explains four additional rights that she developed from this research: right to citizenship, right to mobility, right to own your land/property and right to work.

12.55 -17.10

  • Further discussion about Venezuela and the effect of price controls and other actions of Hugo Chavez’ government including hijacking of media for his own purposes, land invasions and the rise of political violence up to and since his death in 2013 and the uncertainty and continuing political violence and protests surrounding the new Government of Nicolas Maduro including reports of power and food rationing.

17.10 - end

  • Discussion around accountability - who can be held accountable by whom and how for the sorts of things that Rhoda’s research reveals? Rhoda uses North Korea as an example of a country that could potentially be taken to court for starving its own people. She points out that other concerns about North Korea’s nuclear capability and the wider threat of this to the region and other parts of the world tend to take precedence.
  • Todd summarises points made around the inter-relatedness of rights, how international human rights law is powerful in some areas and not in others, how accountability is difficult to prove and the competing priorities around power and access to weapons etc.

 Further information and resources

Famine Crimes in International Law, David Marcus, The American Journal of International Law Colonialism and Under development in Ghana Rhoda Howard-Haussmann’s blog

Rights and Rightlessness: Rhoda Howard-Haussmann on Human Rights

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