WHATEVER the triggering cause of a famine, the effects are always most devastating when food deliveries are impeded or prevented by civil conflict. This has been true of African famines for the past 20 years. It is true today in Mozambique, Chad, and Angola, but most obvious in Ethiopia. Whatever the merits of charges and countercharges by government and insurgents, the fact remains that starving bystanders are not getting food.
Hunger as a weapon is as old as the history of declared and undeclared warfare. It is a weapon that singles out the weak and helpless.
There has never been a famine or food shortage, whatever the cause, that has not first affected small children, then pregnant and nursing women and the elderly. Young men are physiologically the most resistant to starvation; armed men seldom starve.
Fifteen years ago I made a proposal at a famine symposium in Sweden: an international agreement outlawing starvation as a weapon of terror or coercion in war or civil conflict. I suggested that it incorporate an enforced agreement to permit free passage of food convoys into a famine area. The Swedish government retained the proposal and brought it to the United Nations. It has reached the point where two 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions include provisions to prohibit starvation of civilians as a weapon in international and noninternational armed conflicts.
The protocols, which deal with many aspects of the protection of war victims, were signed by 48 countries and have been adopted by consensus by more than 100. The United States, one of the original signatories, still has the protocols under study for possible ratification.
There appears to be general agreement on the provision against starvation. Bacteriological warfare has been outlawed because of the effect on soldiers and civilians alike. Starvation is worse. It preferentially attacks vulnerable civilians, and contrary to the common belief of general staffs, it cannot even be defended as an effective weapon.
For example: In the US Civil War, Sherman's march to the sea created enmities that endure to this day, but Lee lost the war at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and in the factories of the North, not because his Army was hungry.
In the 129-day siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, the death rate for children, women, and the elderly rose soon after the siege began, and it kept on rising. The National Guard, according to contemporary records, had enough to eat and perhaps too much to drink. Paris surrendered only after the French Army had marched to internment in Switzerland.
Allies blockaded the Central Powers early in World War I, hoping to end the war quickly. Famine hit Hamburg in late 1916, Berlin in early 1917, Vienna and the Rhineland by the middle of the year. The German Army received normal rations throughout the war, and it was still winning victories in March and June of 1918 .
The siege of Leningrad began in 1941. By the time it was lifted in 1944, more than a million civilians had died. The Russian troops' rations were cut, but not to the point where they could not defend the city, and they were able to break out to join the advancing relief force.
In the Nigerian civil war, starvation was used as a weapon of terror by the Nigerians, as a weapon of propaganda by the Biafrans. I was one of the few outside observers allowed inside the Biafran lines. In some villages, not a child under 7 was left alive; by my estimate, some 1.5 million people died. But I saw no critical food shortages in the Biafran Army, which was eventually defeated by lack of weapons, not food.
And all Americans remember how little effect our massive crop destruction and food interdiction had in the Vietnamese war.
The world community is now rushing aid to Africa. At this time, joint action by the US and the USSR could be effective in breaking the blockades and protecting food convoys and relief workers. An open declaration by the two countries, proclaimed by President Reagan and President Chernenko, would be a constructive step in an area where collaboration is far less difficult than in the area of arms control. Until we can formally ban starvation as a weapon, let us act as if we had, and move on it.
Dr. Jean Mayer, president of Tufts University, has served as vice-chairman and acting chairman of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and as a consultant to FAO, WHO, and UNICEF.