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  • Writer's pictureInternational Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

Starvation as a Political Tool and Method of Genocide: A Conference Held by Zoryan Institute

(L-R) Doris Bergen (University of Toronto), Joyce Apsel (New York University), George Shirinian, Mark McGowan (University of Toronto) from the University of Naples

The International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (A Division of the Zoryan Institute) partnered with the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies of the University of Alberta (Toronto office), the Canadian Foundation for Ukrainian Studies, the Petro Jacyk Program at CERES (Munk School of Global Affairs), and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures of the University of Toronto to host a symposium on the political uses of starvation and its relation to genocide.

The subjects discussed included The Irish Famine, the Armenian Genocide, the Ukrainian Famine, and the Nuba Mountains crisis in Sudan. The symposium took place on October 22, 2015 at the University of Toronto.

When the Ukrainian Communist Party began to side with the peasantry, who largely resisted Stalin’s regime, measures were taken to punish this group and demonstrate Soviet power. Dr. Andrea Graziosi examined Stalin’s enforced famine, the Holodomor, 1932-1933, which killed roughly 4 million Ukrainians. Food and grain were confiscated, and when peasants tried to flee this artificial famine, they were tracked down and brought back to Ukraine.

Mr. George Shirinian of the Zoryan Institute described how Turkish authorities had the gendarmes use circuitous death marches leading to the desert to exhaust, starve and eliminate their victims from 1915 to 1918 during the Armenian Genocide. They only occasionally provided small food rations, often in return for bribes or sexual exploitation. The Young Turk leadership use this elaborate method to draw out and enhance the suffering of the Armenians in order to exert Turkish dominance over them, for their perceived attempts to rise above their subject position as giavours.

A contrast to this is the Irish Famine of 1845-1851, although it was not orchestrated by the British government, their policies to alleviate this crisis, in which 1 million people died, were inadequate. Dr. Mark McGowan from the University of Toronto explained that, while substantial funds were used to establish systems like poorhouses and soup kitchens for the suffering Irish population, these did not effectively combat the emergency. Further interventions did not occur, by the government or others with the potential to help, such as the English landowners and the Irish clergy.

Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan has neglected the needs of populations in the south since conflicts arose there in the 1980s, and has since undertaken measures to control and eliminate the Nuba people. In “peace camps,” women and children are abused, converted to Islam or starved by the northern army. Dr. Sam Totten, Professor Emeritus of the University of Arkansas, discussed what is being called genocide by attrition. Bombings destroy farm land and force others into the Nuba Mountains where they have no access to food and must subsist on roots and grasses. Humanitarian aid is denied by the government, submitting this population to genocidal methods of starvation.

Panel Chairs Dr. Doris Bergen, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Bohdan Klid, Director of Research and Publications at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, introduced the speakers. Discussant Joyce Apsel, Master Teacher in Humanities at New York University and instructor on Genocide and Human Rights, raised questions about broader issues relating to the case studies. Taking a comparative approach, she looked for larger themes across all contexts: how some mass atrocities have gained more public attention than others, if starvation has been considered an integral instrument of government control and genocide, issues of agency and responsibility, and the impact of these events on diasporas.

Prof. Roger W. Smith, Chair of the Zoryan Institute, remembers being told by his parents as a child not to waste food and to “remember the starving Armenians.” This common phrase still in living memory reflects the impact of starvation; how it was used during the Genocide and what people remember of that history, has recently proposed applying the term “partial genocide” to the Irish Famine. Recognizing the historical context of Ireland, conquered by Britain, English control over the Irish population through government and landownership, and the pronounced poverty the Irish suffered, he suggests the minimal efforts by the British government during this time of crisis could be classified as a partial genocide.

Currently, there is relatively little scholarship on starvation as an instrument of genocide. By co-organizing and engaging in this conference, the Zoryan Institute attempted to demonstrate the importance of human rights and genocide research as a means of shedding light on continued instances of mass starvation and other political tools of manipulation of vulnerable minorities. This scholarship can serve as a pathway to prevent such atrocities in the future.

The Zoryan Institute and its subsidiary, the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, is the first non-profit, international centre devoted to the research and documentation of contemporary issues with a focus on Genocide, Diaspora and Armenia.

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