Rice grains on a plate.

Famines as mass atrocities: Reconsidering Violence, Memory and Justice in Relation to Hunger

Research project
Active research
Project period
2019 - 2022
Project owner
School of Global Studies

Swedish Research Council

Short description

Although famines have killed staggering numbers of people, they are usually not conceptualized as mass-violence. Victims are rarely commemorated and actors responsible are not held accountable – despite the fact that famines are largely man-made. The project analyses the attempts and possibilities to pursue remembrance and justice after mass-starvation. By looking at six famines in Africa, Asia and Europe, we ask under what conditions, how and by whom famines are understood, remembered and dealt with as mass-atrocities. We also look at contemporary initiatives to push for remembrance and justice for hunger deaths, for instance by intergovernmental organizations, civil society groups, legal professionals, victim groups and states.


After a long period of decline, hunger is on the rise again in the world. In 2016, 100 million people faced crisis-level food insecurity, an increase of 20 million from the year before. In 2017, famine was declared in South Sudan and famine risk alerts were issued for Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Between 1870 and 2010, at least one hundred million people died in large-scale famines, indicating that mass-starvation should be seen as a tragedy on a par with genocides and wars. Yet, the grief and suffering caused by famine tend to be treated differently than deaths inflicted by more direct and spectacular forms of violence. While global norms and mechanisms have been established to hold perpetrators accountable, find out the truth about and commemorate the victims of war, genocide, and terrorism, famines continue to be perceived as “natural” misfortunes and its victims are most often invisible and “not grievable”. This despite the fact that closer scrutiny of the causes of famines reveals that they are indeed often caused by deliberate actions – or failures to act – and that it thus makes sense to talk about and deal with them as “famine crimes”.   

Research aims

This research project seeks to contribute to an emerging scholarly and policy endeavour to (re)frame famines as mass atrocities and thereby find ways to address the suffering and perpetration of hunger in the past in ways that can help prevent such calamities in the future. More precisely, the project aims to analyse the attempts and possibilities to pursue remembrance and justice after famines. 

The project will be the first systematic study of attempts to pursue remembrance and justice in relation to famines. Earlier research has urged for an understanding of famines as mass atrocities and started to investigate the legal opportunities available to pursue accountability. However, no one has yet studied the various actors and interests involved in the endeavours to remember and deal with famines as violence – nor analysed the opportunities and obstacles for such attempts.  
In a broader sense, this study plays an important role in drawing attention to the severe suffering of hunger which has generated far less interest than more spectacular forms of violence. The carrying out of this project is hence in itself a (small) contribution towards rectifying this bias within the fields of International Relations, Peace Research, and academia more broadly. By engaging with famines as mass atrocities both academically and in dialogue with the broader society, the researchers will contribute to the efforts of making visible – and grievable – the lives lost in hitherto silenced disasters.

The study will also make a novel contribution to the field of memory research by investigating when and how famines are constructed as a past that is to be remembered. The few studies that exist deal with European famines. Our project will bring insights also from other parts of the world. To broaden the discussion about remembrance of structural violence to the context of the world’s least developed countries is important since these are the ones most vulnerable to famines and food crises today.  

The project will also be of direct relevance for policy and activist attempts to draw attention to and prevent hunger. If we know more about when and how perpetrators of famines can be identified and held accountable and under what circumstances commemoration of famine victims works as a way to soothe grief, acknowledge the suffering and build trust, strategies for dealing with famines in ways that prevent them in the future can be formulated. 

Research questions

The project will answer the following two questions:

  • Under what conditions, how, and by whom are famines understood, remembered and dealt with as mass-atrocities?
    This question will be answered through a historical study, looking at how six famines – in Africa, Asia, and Europe – have been conceptualized as mass-violence (or not), remembered (or forgotten) and the attempts that have been made to identify and bring those responsible to account.   
  • Which contemporary actors and initiatives push for remembrance and justice for hunger deaths? What are their motivations and what challenges do they face? 
    This question will be answered through a study of actors globally who engage with famines or severe food crises. Such actors may include intergovernmental organizations, transnational civil society groups, and networks, legal professionals, diaspora groups, victim groups and states.