The Purposes of Starvation: historical and contemporary uses

I am pleased to announce that my article co-authored with Alex de Waal, “The Purposes of Starvation: historical and contemporary uses,” has been published by the Journal of International Criminal Justice, in a special edition on Starvation and International Law, edited by  Antonio CocoJérôme de Hemptinne, and Brian Lander. Among the many excellent articles in the issue, is one by our colleagues in the Accountability for Starvation project, Wayne Jordash, Catriona Murdoch and Joe Holmes, “Strategies for Prosecuting Mass Starvation.”

Below is the introduction from our article, which is available online in full (with open access).


Mass violence was once dismissed as ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ or ‘tribal violence’. Today, it is widely accepted that widespread and systematic assaults against civilians result from policies implemented by leaders in pursuit of strategic goals. What is more, these policies have been deemed criminal by international tribunals, domestic courts and the court of public opinion.

It is time to shift our thinking about mass starvation in a similar way and with a similar result. While failures of food production or distribution are often central factors, mass starvation results from a broader range of acts that actively debilitate a population’s capacity to survive. Many of these acts are already prohibited under different provisions of international law. We introduce the term ‘starvation crimes’ to capture how these separately criminalized acts, when perpetrated over a duration of months or even years, can create mass starvation.

Implicit in ‘starvation crimes’ is that starvation is produced by leaders’ decisions and serves political, military or economic goals. In this essay, we discuss nine objectives that can be furthered through mass starvation, offering historical examples to illustrate each. They include: (i) extermination or genocide; (ii) control through weakening a population; (iii) gaining territorial control; (iv) flushing out a population; (v) punishment; (vi) material extraction or theft; (vii) extreme exploitation; (viii) war provisioning; and (ix) comprehensive societal transformation.

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

Stay Connected