Heinze on Howard-Hassmann, 'State Food Crimes'

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann
Eric A. Heinze

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann. State Food Crimes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 288 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-58996-4; $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-13352-5.

Reviewed by Eric A. Heinze (University of Oklahoma)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Recent decades have witnessed increased attention being given to food and water issues in international affairs. Yet when it comes to human rights, the subjects of the right to food and freedom from hunger still take a back seat to the more traditional concerns of state governments, which tend to focus on civil and political rights. In her new book, renowned human rights scholar and leading voice on issues related to socioeconomic rights, Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, examines what she calls “food crimes” primarily from the perspective of international relations and law. 

The aim of this book is to examine the phenomenon of state food crimes, which the author defines as “crime by states that deny their own citizens and others for whom they are directly responsible one of their most fundamental human rights, the right to food” (p. 1). The focus of this work is definitely on the worst of such crimes: that of famine, which she defines, following Amartya Sen, as “a particularly virulent manifestation [of starvation] causing widespread death” (p. 15).[1] The book is thus largely dedicated to exploring the prevention and punishment of state-induced famine by examining different cases of famine and the degree to which the governments in question deliberately caused the famine. In addition, the book contains sophisticated discussions of the various global efforts that impinge upon the problem of famine: those of international law and economic statecraft. A theme throughout the book is the interdependence and indivisibility of different human rights, which is to say, that the lack of civil and political rights can and does contribute to state food crimes just as readily as the lack of a codified right to food. Yet despite the dense network of legal rules and treaties that indirectly prohibit and criminalize the deliberate infliction of the conditions of famine, Howard-Hassmann concludes with a call for a new international treaty on the right to food that addresses not only the worst of state-induced famine but also the responsibility of those in developed countries toward victims of state-induced famine.

The primary contribution of this book lies in its detailed discussion of empirical cases of state-induced famine, appraisal of these cases under extant international law, and discussion of the shortcomings of global efforts to prevent and punish famine crimes. Yet these discussions, while rich in historical detail and precise in the application of relevant international legal rules and concepts, do not necessarily uncover any significant, new insights about these cases or legal principles. The empirical sections, for instance, provide very helpful overviews of cases of state-induced famine—including historical cases like the Soviet Union and Cambodia; famine induced by democracies, such as the Irish famine; and several contemporary cases of famine (e.g., North Korea and Zimbabwe). But aside from some legal commentary and appraisal of such cases using David Marcus’s “faminogenesis” categories,[2] the central claims of these sections are difficult to see. Of course, one can draw several broad conclusions from these discussions, as the author does in the latter chapters, but these conclusions appear to reiterate much of what is already known about international human rights and the subject of famine in international affairs and law: famines are almost always human-caused, if not deliberate; relevant international law is deficient or inadequate in preventing and punishing such crimes; and democracies have also contributed to food crimes and have a debatable record in upholding the right to food in their own jurisdictions. 

Yet the book does provide a sound evidentiary basis for some important claims that human rights scholars have made for some time now. First is regarding Sen’s famous observation in Development as Freedom (1999) that there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy. While technically true, as Howard-Hassmann shows in chapters 3 and 11, this ignores the fact that democracies have contributed to famines in areas outside their formal borders but under their effective jurisdiction, as well as frequently denied rights to their own populations, which has profound implications for their access to food. Thus, it is not as clear-cut, as Sen has argued, that the basic freedoms associated with democracy (free press, universal suffrage, and political space for opposition) are sufficient to stave off famine.

Second, this book provides additional evidence for the observation and argument that human rights are and should be considered interdependent and indivisible, in particular, when it comes to hunger and famine. That is to say, civil and political rights are just as important as socioeconomic rights in facilitating access to food and prevention of famine. Furthermore, as Howard-Hassmann argues in regard to Sen, it takes more than a majoritarian democracy to stave off famine, but a broad complement of human rights that include rights to citizenship, mobility, property rights, and the right to work. Again, this is not necessarily a new argument, but it is a contested idea and this book has provided important evidence in support of it.

Perhaps the most interesting and original aspect of the book is the proposal for a new international treaty on famine crimes in light of the shortcomings of extant international law, which is unsuitable due to difficulties involving demonstrating intentionality. Surprisingly, chapter 12, which also serves as the conclusion to the book, is quite brief and provides little detail as to what the treaty would resemble, other than some broad calls to reiterate relevant clauses from treaties like the Genocide Convention, include new provisions for crimes like penal starvation, and create mechanisms for the punishment of such crimes. In principle, a new treaty on this topic seems like a reasonable proposal, but it is hard to know how effective (or likely) such a treaty would be without more details, particularly given that virtually all the human rights violations addressed in this book are already prohibited in other treaties (and criminalized in others), not to mention the extreme unlikelihood that such a treaty could ever be agreed upon and ratified by state governments given the current state of the world. The proposal of a new treaty is also curious considering Howard-Hassmann’s observation early in the book that “it is internal human rights, not external law or practice, that protects citizens against state food crimes” (p. 4). Thus, as usual, the need is not for more substantive laws or more treaties but for better enforcement of existing laws.

Yet despite these criticisms, State Food Crimes is a book of significant erudition that provides a detailed and thoughtful discussion of the most important empirical and legal dimensions of the global effort to prevent and punish state food crimes. The book is clearly intended for an audience who has some familiarity with the international legal system and of the international human rights literature, and would therefore be suitable for professionals and scholars working in the international human rights field and related fields of international relations and international law. The book would also be suitable for college course adoption, perhaps in an upper-division undergraduate or postgraduate class. While not necessarily advancing new insights or claims, it provides an effective introduction to and survey of a topic whose importance and urgency will only increase in years to come.


[1]. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 40.

[2]. David Marcus, “Famine Crimes in International Law,” American Journal of International Law 97 no. 2 (2003): 245-281.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48668

Citation: Eric A. Heinze. Review of Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E., State Food Crimes. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48668

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