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Deliberate starvation: a distinct crime?

March 05, 2023
topic:Food Security
tags:#food security, #famine, #humanitarian aid, #Yemen
by:Robert Bociaga
Experts are pushing for the recognition of deliberate starvation in a conflict as a distinct crime, believing it could deter such acts in the future and promote accountability.

Global Rights Compliance, an international human rights law firm, has called on western governments, including the UK and US, to recognise the use of deliberate starvation as a weapon of war.

The law firm believes that failure to do so could lead to the deaths of millions of people in some of the world’s most vulnerable and conflict-prone countries. 

The use of starvation as a weapon of war has been reported in several countries, including Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine. Global Rights Compliance said its investigations have shown that the victims of starvation are experience shame and anguish, and live under undignified conditions. 

The law firm stated that intentional starvation requires recognition as a distinct crime that is worthy of investigation and prosecution. It argues that although it may not prevent the harm already inflicted, recognising the crime can help prevent it from happening again in the future.

Worldwide, over 41 million people are at risk of famine due to armed conflicts and climate change, but this number is subject to fluctuation.

Currently, the countries most-affected by conflict-induced food insecurity include Yemen, South Sudan and Syria, with millions facing acute hunger and malnutrition. 

The ongoing conflict in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of deliberately targeting infrastructure and blockading ports, has led to severe food and medicine shortages affecting millions of Yemenis. The United Nations described the situation in Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 10 million who are at risk of famine.

In South Sudan's civil war, both government forces and rebels have been accused of using starvation as a weapon of war against civilians.

Numerous experts and organisations, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Law Commission, the International Criminal Court and Human Rights Watch, have called for the recognition of starvation as a separate crime under international law. 

Lorraine Smith van Lin, a consultant for the United Nations and former director of the World Food Programme, stated that "starvation as a weapon of war is a heinous tactic that inflicts unimaginable suffering on innocent civilians. We must recognise it as a distinct crime and hold those responsible accountable."


Dr. Catriona Drew, an international law lecturer at the University of Glasgow, noted that the classification of starvation as a crime is not a new concept.

The Rome Statute, which is the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court, regards deliberate starvation as a crime against humanity. However, Dr. Drew told FairPlanet, "the application of this provision has been limited, and it has not been used in practice to prosecute those who have intentionally caused starvation as a method of warfare."

Those advocating for the recognition of intentional starvation as a crime argue that it could prevent the recurrence of such crimes. Richard J. Goldstone, former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, stated that "recognising starvation as a weapon of war is a critical step towards deterring future acts of deliberate starvation."

He added, "This recognition sends a message to all parties in a conflict that the intentional use of starvation as a method of warfare will not be tolerated."

The harm inflicted by deliberate starvation is significant, and failure to recognise starvation crimes could risk the lives of millions of people in some of the world's most vulnerable regions, said Catriona Murdoch, partner and Head of Starvation Portfolio at Global Rights Compliance.

"It is critical we recognise that starvation is a violation worthy of attention and to highlight, when appropriate, this conduct as a deliberate act, not a personal failing. Labelling it separately from other crimes is critical."

For her, "A pattern emerges in all [cases of intentional starvation]: Shame from the array of undignified acts that range from poverty and the inability to feed one's family or pay for transportation to feeding centers, maternal deficiencies, to [developing] negative coping mechanisms like child marriages or looting.

"The utter anguish of choosing which child to feed and which to let starve cannot be underestimated."

The Starvation Amendment, for which the above mentioned human rights groups advocate for, is a proposed amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would make the use of starvation as a method of warfare a war crime.

The proposal was introduced in 2018 and is currently under review by the ICC's Assembly of States Parties. 

The latest international call to recognise and condemn deliberate starvation crimes came from Germany, where the starvation of millions of Ukrainians under Joseph Stalin, the Holodomor, was formally deemed a 'genocide' in an effort to serve as a warning to Russia. This came as alarm that starvation is used as a weapon of war against Ukrainians is spreading globally. 

The Holodomor was a man-made famine imposed Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, during which forced collectivisation policies and agricultural production quotas imposed by the Soviet government had led to the death of millions of Ukrainians. People were driven to such extreme measures to survive the famine, that some reportedly resorted to cannibalism. 


While starvation as a result of natural disasters or conflict may not necessarily be considered a crime, deliberate starvation, in which individuals or groups intentionally prevent access to food, is a different matter. The intentional withholding of food as a weapon of war or as a means of control can constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity under international law.

However, the recognition of deliberate starvation as a crime is often contested, since, according to international law, the intent to starve a civilian population must be established for prosecution to follow, and determining intent can be challenging. This is especially true when the perpetrators are government officials or members of a powerful group.

Another challenge is the lack of political will to prosecute such crimes, and despite there being evidence of deliberate starvation occurring in various conflicts, few cases have been brought before international courts.

In the few cases involving starvation brought before the International Criminal Court, it was difficult to secure convictions.

There are also disagreements among experts on whether starvation should be considered a distinct crime or a component of other crimes. Some argue that starvation should be regarded as a form of torture, while others suggest that it should be included as part of a broader statute outlawing crimes against humanity or war crimes.

"There's a lot of agreement on the principles, but there's not a lot of clarity on the specific offenses," Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, told FairPlanet. "The part of the problem is that it's very difficult to write criminal codes that are clear and specific enough to be implemented by courts and judges."

Image by Mahmoud Sulaiman.

Article written by:
Robert Bociaga
Embed from Getty Images
Global Rights Compliance, an international human rights law firm, has called on western governments to recognise intentional starvation as a distinct crime.
Embed from Getty Images
The use of starvation as a weapon of war has been used in conflict zones across the world, including in Ethiopia, Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine.
Embed from Getty Images
“The part of the problem is that it's very difficult to write criminal codes that are clear and specific enough to be implemented by courts and judges."
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