Sight Magazine – Essay: Starving civilians is an old military tactic, but today it’s a war crime in Ukraine, Yemen, Tigray and elsewhere

A hideous contradiction is playing out in war-torn Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians are starving in cities besieged by Russian forces. Meanwhile, the country’s grain stores are overflowing with food and the government is begging for international help. export ukrainian grain to world markets.

Freeing wheat will alleviate the global food crisis, which is an urgent imperative. But that won’t stop belligerents around the world from using starvation as their favorite weapon.

Sergei Yarosh, head of the Mlybor (flour mill) company, walks past a truck loaded with grain at the facility after being repeatedly shelled, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the region of Chernihiv, Ukraine, May 24. PHOTO: Reuters/Edgar Su.

At the end of 2021, nearly 200 million people worldwide were suffering from acute food insecurity. The number soared after Russia invasion and blockade of Ukrainea major exporter of grains and oilseeds, which global food markets disrupted. This drives up food prices and strains aid budgets.

Russia is not the only belligerent to weaponize hunger. Most people now at risk of starvation inhabit places war-afflicted. Many are deliberately starved in what amounts to a form of social torture.

“Historically, starvation tactics have been excluded from war crimes prosecutions. As scholars who study international law, humanitarian crises and food security, we believe it is time to confront the criminality of this practice. .”

Historically, starvation tactics have been excluded from prosecution for war crimes. As scholars who study international law, humanitarian crises and food safetywe believe it is time to confront the criminality of this practice.

Not just a tactic for dictators
Starvation is one of the oldest weapons of war. The Romans used it for defeat and destroy Carthage in 146 BC. Tactics have changed little over time. They include the destruction of food, farms and water supplies and the isolation of beleaguered enemy populations.

It is tempting to think that only totalitarians would use food as a weapon. Russia’s war against Ukraine today echoes Holodomorof dictator Josef Stalin subjugation of Ukraine by starvation in 1933.

of Adolf Hitler”Hunger Planstarved 4.2 million Soviet citizens during World War II. In 1977, the Cambodian Pol Pot used mass starvation as a tool of titanic social reengineering in his Year zero effort to transform his country into a purely agrarian nation.

But liberal states are not innocent. The Lieber Code of 1863which President Abraham Lincoln issued to instruct the Union Army on the limits of hostilities, provided it was “lawful to starve the hostile belligerent, armed or unarmed”, stating that fleeing civilians might be driven back to a besieged place “in order to hasten the surrender”. The U.S. Department of Defense has not formally waived this legal position until 2015.



It was not just a paper doctrine. The Atlantic powers used mass starvation as a weapon in both world wars, employing maritime blockades as the preferred tactic.

The United States went so far as to call its effort to encircle the Japanese homeland in 1945 Operation Famine. Great Britain used the same expression for its mass civilian relocation program designed to defeat the Communists in Malaya in the 1950s.

When the Geneva Conventionskey treaties governing warfare, were written after World War II, the United States and Britain successfully resisted efforts to ban such methods, ensuring that starvation of civilians would remain permitted in time of war for several more decades.

Starvation as a war crime
The first important steps towards banning starvation tactics came after the war-induced famines in Nigeria. breakaway region of Biafra in the late 1960s and Bangladesh in 1972 and 1974. In 1977, nations adopted two Additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions, each of which included the prohibition of “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”. These protocols have been ratified by 174 and 169 States respectively.

In 1998 the Statute of the International Criminal Court codified starvation methods as a war crime in international armed conflicts. A Amendment 2019 expanded this doctrine to cover non-international armed conflicts – conflicts between states and organized armed groups, or between organized armed groups. In addition to food, the legal definition of starvation also includes deprivation of water, shelter and medical care.

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Hunger Tactics
Despite these legal advances, crimes of starvation have been observed in recent or current conflicts in Ethiopia, mali, Burma, Nigeria, south sudan, Syria, Yemen and now Ukraine.

The warring parties have attacked aid workers and farmers; stolen or slaughtered livestock; and destroyed or rendered unusable crops, agricultural land and other food sources.

Breeders have been blocked moving freely with their livestockfarmers of work on their land and the hungry in search of wild berries and herbs.

The effects were devastating. From 2020 to 2022 the number of people in urgent need of food assistance in situations of armed conflict has increased from 99 million to 166 million. This includes nearly two-thirds of South Sudan’s population, with nearly one in four people living in a real humanitarian emergency the.

The people of Yemen, isolated by a Saudi and Emirati blockade on the one hand and subject to the confiscation of food and medicine by the Houthis on the other, have endured years of what remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

In a 2021 report, the UN-affiliated agency Independent International Commission on Syria describes “modern sieges in which the authors deliberately starved the population according to medieval scenarios”. The commission described the Syrian regime imposing “indefensible and shameful restrictions on humanitarian aid” to civilians in cities including Aleppo, Homs, Daraa and Eastern Ghouta.

Perhaps the most extreme Case is Tigray in Ethiopia, where the Ethiopian government has besieged the region for more than a year and a half, closing banks and commerce and limiting humanitarian aid to the smallest trickle. This tactic was used alongside a country of destruction, looting, rape and killing that has destroyed the economy of a region of seven million people.

Russian forces in Ukraine have engaged in an ever-growing list of starvation tactics, besiege trapped populationsattacker grocery stores and agricultural areas and granaries, deployment of landmines on agricultural land, block ships loaded with wheat to leave Ukrainian ports and destroy a vital grain export terminal in Mykolaiv. Moreover, although the United States and the EU have exempted fertilizers from sanctions (Russia and Belarus are two of the world’s largest producers), Russia has decided to withdraw fertilizers from the market.

Respond to the crisis
In accordance with the International Criminal Court, many countries now prohibit starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in their national war crimes codes. Some of these States have opened investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine and Syria. Among others, these countries include France, Germany, Norway and Sweden.

Although the penal codes of Russia and Ukraine do not explicitly mention starvation tactics, they contain provisions under which such crimes could be prosecuted. The Ethiopian penal code also includes the starvation war crime.

Criminal sanctions alone will not end starvation in armed conflict. This would require an effort that also includes reconstruction, reparations, support for displaced communities and targeted humanitarian action. However, in our view, it is time to make accountability a central part of the response.

To this end, we urge investigators to focus on starvation methods in their extraordinary efforts at document war crimes in Ukraine. At the same time, it is important to recognize that Russia’s tactics are not abnormal. Those with competent jurisdictional authority should give equal attention to the criminal use of starvation tactics elsewhere, such as in South Sudan, Syria, Tigray and Yemen.The conversation

Tom Dannenbaum is associate professor of international law at Tufts University; Alex De Waal is a research professor and executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts Universityand Daniel Maxwell is Henry J Leir Professor of Food Safety, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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