Starvation as a Method of Warfare: Resolution 2417 (2018)

In a recent article published by Just Security I analyze the term “starvation as a method of warfare” (a term found in international humanitarian law), and I argue that the recent Security Council Resolution 2417 (2017) should not have restricted itself to considering starvation solely from the viewpoint of its use a method of warfare. I argue that starvation is caused by many reasons, including when targeting legitimate military objectives or with the collapse of economic and banking systems. The full article can be accessed here. The section that related to humanitarian law and starvation is reproduced below.

International Humanitarian Law and Starvation

Limiting sanctions to situations in which starvation is intentionally imposed significantly limits the Council’s sanctions power. In the text of the new resolution, “starvation” and “method of warfare” are inseparable. To use starvation as a method of warfare would be “…to provoke it (starvation) deliberately, causing the population to suffer hunger, particularly by depriving it of its sources of food or of supplies.” The same applies to the war crime of starvation, where one must demonstrate the intentional imposition of conditions of starvation on a population. The different ways in which one can demonstrate intentional starvation is outside the scope of this post, but, suffice it to say that it has been difficult for sanctions investigators to prove that a particular military or commander or an armed group intentionally starved a segment or a totality of the civilian population. For example, it is well accepted that a siege or blockade, whether it be of a country or a city within a country, may not in itself be a deliberate provocation of a situation of starvation, according to humanitarian law, “as long as the purpose is to achieve a military objective and not to starve a civilian population.”

There are multiple situations in which starvation may not be an intentional tactic, but may be a desirable, or tolerable side effect of military actions. For example, a belligerent may believe that a starving civilian population allows for the winning of the hearts and minds of people when food assistance is finally allowed in, or when starvation and desperation leads to regime change or weakening of political and military support for the enemy. In other circumstances, those in de facto or de jure control of territory may be negligent when confronted with potential starvation and may fail to adopt timely measures to prevent starvation even in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe. These circumstances offer examples of potentially sanctions-worthy conduct, but may not be examples of starvation being deliberately used as a weapon of war.

This is where Resolution 2417 (2018) could have broken new ground. The Council could have moved beyond limiting itself to contexts in which starvation is used “as a weapon of war” to cover other circumstances of conflict-induced starvation, including as indirect consequences of military actions of parties to conflict. This could have included situations in which lawful military action is being conducted despite clear warnings and indicators that a particular course of action would create or exacerbate starvation, but where the purpose of that action was not to starve the population.

In taking a wider approach, the Security Council could have drawn from international law obligations of parties to the conflict to take measures to minimize the deleterious effects of conflict on civilian populations. It could also have emphasized the importance of precautionary measures and proportionality assessments when parties undertake attacks against military objectives, when those military operations have significant potential to aggravate food insecurity or contribute to starvation.

Resolution 2417 (2018) does reiterate the international humanitarian law prohibition on direct attacks against objects indispensable to survival of the civilian population. But this may not be sufficient in situations such as Yemen and South Sudan, where parties are using these objects as cover for military operations or where belligerents and civilians share the same objects. For one, the rule that dual use objects may not be attacked may only apply in international armed conflicts between states. In non-international armed conflicts, it is doubtful, as elaborated by the ICRC, whether international humanitarian law prohibits attacks that are carried out in direct support of military action against such indispensable objects, including when those attacks may be expected the leave the civilian population with sufficiently inadequate food and water so as to cause its starvation. In conclusion, the Security Council would have been more inclusive if it considered a more progressive approach to the issue of starvation than being limited by its relationship to international humanitarian law.

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