The World

Starvation Is a Weapon

All around the world, armies are deliberately denying food to civilians. But prosecuting starvation as a war crime has been difficult.

A crowd of Syrians stretching their arms up to soldiers holding boxes of food.
Syrian civilians evacuated from the Eastern Ghouta enclave reach for food distributed by Syrian soldiers in Hawsh al-Ashaari on the outskirts of Damascus on March 18, 2018.
Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Millions of civilians around the world are being deliberately starved to death. These victims of ongoing conflicts, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, find themselves not as the collateral damage of ravenous wars but as the targets of orchestrated starvation campaigns. And yet, no cases of human-made famine have ever been prosecuted at an international level.

From the 1870s to the 1970s, famines killed an average of nearly 1 million people each year. But by the start of the 21st century, natural famines were all but eliminated. Starvation deaths plummeted as technology, law, and humanitarian efforts sprinted ahead. But the brutal conflicts of the last decade—wars in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia, among others—are reversing the trend. (Last year, 20 million people faced starvation due to civil conflicts, and global hunger is rising.) And because today’s famines are neither random nor accidental “costs of war” but intentional atrocities, lawyers and scholars are making a case to punish starvation at the highest levels.

“Mass starvation is not a natural phenomenon nor is it a haphazard by-product of war,” says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation. “It is the foreseeable result of intentional actions and should be treated as criminal.”

The evidence is plain enough. At the height of the Syrian war, approximately 7 million people, nearly 40 percent of the country’s population, were unable to meet their basic food requirements. Protracted sieges and halted aid convoys under the Bashar al-Assad regime’s “kneel or starve” strategy have beleaguered the country for most of its eight-year war. According to the U.N., 1.5 million in South Sudan are starving, and another 6 million face “extreme hunger.” The citizens of Yemen may be suffering under the worst famine-as-war program in the world today, with most of the population in need of aid as armed forces seize food shipments, militias divert aid, and combat keeps stockpiles out of reach. Even the United States is facing starvation accusations for refusing to feed 30,000 displaced Syrians living in a camp near an American outpost.

In Eastern Ghouta, a region near Damascus that came under the longest siege since World War II, water supplies were cut and food aid was restricted and, at times, blocked entirely. The Syrian government’s five-year assault included the targeting of communal kitchens and bakeries “to inflict the maximum deprivation.” Even when Syrian forces permitted aid to be delivered to some residents, the government ordered humanitarian workers not to deliver it to others. The blockade caused the price of basic foodstuffs to skyrocket: In 2017, bread in Eastern Ghouta was going for 1,100 percent more than in nearby Damascus, sugar prices multiplied by 10, and malnutrition rates erupted.

As starvation has “re-emerged as a significant feature of modern warfare,” according to researchers with the World Peace Foundation and the nongovernmental organization Global Rights Compliance, similar stories could be told in other famished and war-torn places.

And starvation tactics aren’t exclusive to armed conflicts; they’re playing out today in Venezuela and other countries where political and military forces obstruct humanitarian efforts by diverting and destroying aid.

“It looks very much like it has been used as a weapon systematically in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan, as well as others,” says Catriona Murdoch, senior legal consultant at Global Rights Compliance. And it’s not just a homegrown problem. “The lack of international will certainly has a grave impact,” she says. “There is little deterrence, and perpetrators are acting with impunity.”

Humanitarians and scholars like de Waal have been pressing the issue for years, building to the current campaign from the World Peace Foundation and Global Rights Compliance to formally criminalize intentional starvation. Thanks to these efforts, along with the support of governments like the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden, a U.N. resolution passed unanimously just last year prohibiting starvation as a weapon of war. Though prosecutions aren’t a reality yet, that could be on the brink of change as advocates for criminalizing starvation are now taking aim at the International Criminal Court.

Despite its use from Sarajevo to Phnom Penh, there are plenty of reasons starvation hasn’t been prosecuted. A loophole in the ICC’s Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC, is at the top of the list. The statute, which came into effect in 2002, outlaws starvation in international armed conflicts but not in noninternational conflicts like those in Syria and Yemen. It’s a bizarre distinction with no logical basis. That’s why a primary aim of the organizations working to prosecute starvation is to pass an amendment that would bury this legislative escape hatch.  

When it comes to the law, it’s always hard to do something new. It’s easier to prosecute political and military leaders for killing people with machetes and mines—crimes that are obvious and well understood—than to prosecute them for depriving citizens of nutrients, which is an old tactic but only just recently understood as a war crime. That, however, is why the current work is so important: because it’s providing a framework and a toolkit to use the law and existing mechanisms to execute this shift.

“The lack of road-testing of the crime has meant that prosecutors are naturally nervous about charging something so novel and untested, especially given the current ICC record of failed prosecutions,” says Murdoch.

The lack of precedent also means the practical contours of the crime aren’t yet clear. Deliberately destroying food aid may be obviously criminal behavior, but the criminality of blockades and economic restrictions in wartime aren’t as clear-cut.

But perhaps the biggest roadblock to prosecuting starvation today is simply that it’s not well understood as a genuine weapon. The default view is often that famine is a cause or a natural consequence of war, rather than a planned and maintained mode for mass killing.

Historically, war criminals have been accused of facilitating starvation, but it’s nearly always a peripheral issue. At Nuremberg, Hans Frank, the Nazi administrator of Poland during WWII, was convicted of various crimes. The judgment against him referenced mass starvation, but just as a side note to his other atrocities rather than as an integral part of it. He was aware of this. In his journal he wrote that the international community wouldn’t take much note if the Nazis sentenced more than a million Jews to “die of hunger.”

In the modern era, prosecutions in the aftermath of the carnage in Yugoslavia and Cambodia identified starvation as a distinct crime, and other cases have noted “starvation crimes” generally, but always in the clouding context of broader crimes against humanity. Starvation is referenced in the ICC’s case against Omar al-Bashir, the recently deposed president of Sudan who oversaw the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Darfur in the early 2000s, but the case has gone almost nowhere.

“It’s an issue that floats at the periphery of these prosecutions,” says Randle DeFalco, a fellow at Rutgers Law School who has researched these issues extensively. “[Famines] are always kind of triaged to the background.”

But there is precedent for this kind of shift, and it’s visible in the criminalization of other bad behaviors.

Sexual and gender-based violence has long been condemned in war, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the ICC handed down its first conviction for sexual violence in its case against Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo. More recently, long-used indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions and antipersonnel mines have been the subject of prohibition campaigns and war crime considerations.

“Those didn’t become crimes because of some group of lawyers,” says DeFalco. “There was a strong activist movement, which created an incentive that became translated into law.”

And yet advocates for the criminalization of starvation face a unique challenge. Outcry against travesties like child soldiers, cluster bombs, and sexual violence has an obvious source of fuel: horrific images and graphic stories in newspapers. When you see photographs of 10-year-olds shouldering rifles, hear of rapes, or scan collages of war-dazed amputees, its easy to attribute guilt. Someone did this. Someone is to blame. Famines, even made urgent in photos of distended bellies in Saturday morning TV appeals for aid, are harder to pin to criminal behavior. It’s not immediately clear this atrocity is being deliberately perpetrated against its victims.

But very often it is. And recognizing that fact, and reframing it in rational legal and humanitarian terms, is providing the impetus to eventually see the culprits concocting and enabling starvation prosecuted.

“We are at the start of a long road to the effective criminalization of starvation,” says Wayne Jordash, managing partner of Global Rights Compliance. “While starvation has not yet been prosecuted by an international court, there is no legal reason to believe that these challenges of prosecuting starvation are insuperable or even more significant than in the average international criminal law trial.”

The first steps to convictions—understanding the crime and how to prosecute it—are already underway. Public awareness of the kind that propelled sexual and gender-based violence crimes to prominence and successful prosecution is gaining steam too. But the next step wades into deep legal waters.

“We desperately need an amendment to the ICC Rome Statute to enable the crime of starvation to be prosecutable in a noninternational armed conflict,” says Murdoch. It should be clear by December whether the proposed amendment will pass or be delayed another year.

Whether the amendment passes or not, what will be required are the resources, resolve, and political and judicial buy-in to make cases happen. The right case is important too—one with clear evidence, headlines, and big players. Laws are already on the books to prosecute starvation crimes, and the Rome Statute amendment would powerfully strengthen the case, but the key ingredient to prosecute and convict dictators and soldiers who starve their countrymen stays the same: Perpetrators will only see the justice of prison bars if there is enough international will.