More justice for civilian victims in cases of deliberate starvation

Thanks to Switzerland, a "glaring gap" in international law has been closed.

Thanks to Switzerland, a "glaring gap" in international law has been closed.

Until now, the deliberate starvation of civilian populations could only be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a war crime in cases of international armed conflicts. No longer. On Friday, December 6, 2019, meeting in The Hague for its 18th session, the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ASP) unanimously accepted a Swiss proposal to amend Article 8 of the Rome Statute making the use of starvation a war crime even in non-international armed conflicts.

According to Corinne Cicéron-Buhler, head of the Directorate for international law at the Swiss foreign ministry, "closing this anomaly will reinforce the ICC's prosecuting competencies. This result could only be achieved thanks to the support of a great number of State Parties." For Stephen J. Rapp, former US Ambassador for War Crimes under President Obama, the adoption of this amendment "sends a potent signal to the civilian victims of deliberate starvation. Switzerland's initiative must be commended."

In a November report on Switzerland's proposed amendment, the International Bar Association offered two current examples of intentional starvation of civilian population. "The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic found that civilians in Syria are frequently denied medical evacuations, vital foodstuffs, health items, and other essential supplies and that these deprivations are imposed as a war tactic to encourage surrender, particularly in connection to sieges. Similarly, the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen concluded that civilians have been prevented (by intentional sniper fire) from fetching water from local wells, purchasing food, and traveling to seek medical attention and delivering critical supplies and that the de facto blockade enforced by coalition naval forces on Yemeni seaports led to severe restrictions, including of essential supplies. Many other conflicts have reportedly seen civilian populations subjected to starvation."

The IBA report also noted that "in 2018, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 113 million people were at risk of acute food insecurity, largely in the context of ongoing armed conflicts.

In a comment, Federica D'Alessandra, co-chairwoman of the IBA's committee, wrote: "Deliberate starvation of civilians during armed conflict is an abhorrent practice for which the perpetrators must be held accountable.