The Duck of Minerva

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New “crimes against humanity”?

May 12, 2008

A few weeks ago, ABC News (Australia) reported the following from AFP:

“Producing biofuels today is a crime against humanity,” UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler told Bayerischer Runfunk radio.

Here’s the logic: Using biological materials (like corn) for energy production increases global food prices because it increases market demand. Biofuel production also increases competition for arable land and potentially encourages developing states to grow crops for profitable energy production instead of necessary foodstuffs. Some American farmers are apparently switching production from soy and wheat to corn.

Incidentally, this is not a new claim by Ziegler. He expressed the same view at UN headquarters last October, as reported by the BBC. At that time, Ziegler called for a 5 year moratorium on biofuels so that new technologies can use agricultural waste instead of crops.

Play around with google for a short time and it is apparent that various political figures are starting to play fast-and-loose with the phrase “crime against humanity.” On April 16, AFP reported:

“The real crime against humanity would be to just cast aside biofuels and push countries struggling with food and energy shortages towards dependency and insecurity,” [Brazilian President Luiz Inacio] Lula told the conference in Brasilia.

So, in this case, an action and its opposite are both described as a “crime against humanity.”

The Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court, provides a broadly agreed definition of “crimes against humanity.” While the scope of the Statute is fairly comprehensive, I don’t see that it would include biofuel production — or nonproduction, for that matter. Even the catch-all category covers merely “acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”:

Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

Over the years, domestic and international critics of American use of “depleted uranium” weapons have characterized this practice as a “crime against humanity.”

Hmmm. That actually seems like a more serious place to start a debate.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.