This month’s Employee of the Month comes to us via Annie Fairchild and Catriona Murdoch, both of our partner organization, Global Rights Compliance.

In light of the unanimous adoption of UNSC Resolution 2417, September’s Employee of the Month is Starvation, and specifically those political and military leaders who have continued to utilise starvation as a weapon of war or a tool of oppression.

Civilian harm is a largely accepted, albeit unintended consequence of conflict. Yet, in today’s violent conflicts from South Sudan to Syria to Yemen, there is an upward trend for the direct and repeated instrumentalisation and/or disregard of civilian harm. As reported by Crisis Group, misery and human deprivation are strategies increasingly used by leaders, governments and non-state armed groups in pursuit of military and political objectives. More specifically, a progressively common feature of modern conflict is man-made famine, with varying levels of individual criminal responsibility. Violations of IHL or IHRL or negligence at large, the blocking of ports, attacks on health facilities, violence against humanitarian workers, and widespread obstruction of relief aid are occurring with a renewed sense of impunity. Disregard of civilian harm is also observed among sovereigns enveloped in political and socio-economic crises amounting to civil strife – but not active conflict – as in the case of Venezuela, where state policy is arguably inducing a famine.

In Yemen, the  Group of Eminent Experts’ September report singled out the Saudis and Emiratis as the protagonists that have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis on an astounding scale; as of May 2018, 18.8 million are food insecure and 8.4 million are on the brink of famine in a country of 29.3 million.[1] Food shortages that chiefly affected remote villages have spilled over to large cities.

The severe naval restrictions and arbitrary screening of ships coming into Yemen’s most important port, Hodeida, imposed by Saudi-led coalition since March 2015, as well as the closure of Sana’a international airport to commercial traffic and medical evacuations, has had a severe humanitarian impact on the civilian population. Subsequently, the cost of bringing goods to market is infinitely higher and the few goods that do make it to Hodeida are unaffordable to approximately two-thirds of the population struck by endemic unemployment and unpaid wages. Airstrikes from warring parties have additionally hit citizens fetching water at local wells and on their way to markets.

That Yemen imported nearly 90 per cent of its food, medical supplies and fuel, and as a result of de facto blockades would no longer bring in the necessary supplies to fend off starvation, were determined to be ‘knowable facts available to those who planned and implemented the naval restrictions’[2] by the Group of Experts. It further warns that ‘no possible military advantage could justify such sustained and extreme suffering of millions of people.’[3] The coalition to date has failed to suspend the restrictions, and thus bears particular responsibility for making a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation far worse.

In Syria, the regime has repeatedly used the strategy of ‘surrender or starve’ to deliberately harm civilians for military and political gain, often by explicitly targeting the resources and infrastructure in opposition strongholds, striking and starving rebels and citizens alike, to pressure them into surrender. Furthermore, there is no indication of any proceedings to call those responsible to account, despite the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria’s June report concluding that siege tactics, such as the indiscriminate attacks, also of protected objects, as observed during the five-year siege in eastern Ghouta, are characterised by war crimes. Starvation is a weapon currently used in the siege of Idlib.

In South Sudan, the brutality of the attacks against civilians has included systematic looting and burning of villages, causing, millions of civilians to be displaced resulting in untold deaths from starvation, thirst and lack of access to medical care. Again, and similar to Yemen, the South Sudan Commission of Inquiry March report stated:

‘Humanitarian aid has been deliberately blocked from reaching civilians perceived to be from the “other side” or on the basis of ethnicity…Hunger and lack of access to health care and schools are used to break down the “other side” in the conflict.’

There are also some new dismal entries to the catalogue of places in which starvation is being perpetrated, either deliberately or recklessly, by a combination of crimes of commission and omission. Many Venezuelans are suffering acute hunger and severe material deprivation in what should be one of the richest countries in the continent, as the humanitarian crisis stems not from war but from political opportunism and utter reluctance to accept rational economic policy. Given its scale, the unprecedented Venezuelan exodus to neighbouring Colombia and Brazil is likely to generate the largest migration crisis in history of the region, and requires a concerted regional response to counter the ensuing security threat.

Prior to their violent expulsion from Myanmar by the Burmese military in what clearly amounts to an ethnic cleansing campaign, the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State were subjected to extensive movement restrictions that prevented or severely limited access to livelihoods and food sources during Myanmar’s apartheid regime. Beyond this, the Myanmar security forces, through a series of ostensibly deliberate actions, adopted a tactic of forced starvation as part of an attempt to drive the remaining Rohingya out of the country; stealing Rohingya livestock; blocking access to Rohingya markets and rice fields at harvest time; and restricting humanitarian access. The landmark September ICC Pre-Trial Chamber ruling on 6 September 2018 that the Court may exercise jurisdiction over alleged deportation of the Rohingya people, is one step closer to prosecuting those that perpetrated crimes against humanity of persecution and/or other inhuman acts.

The predicament in many of today’s armed conflict zones goes to the core of the legal dispute regarding warfare: intent. Warring parties may claim that they never intended to starve a population, maintaining that food insecurity is an unintended consequence of conflict for which they are not culpable. Yet, as Jane Ferguson of the New Yorker writes, political and military leaders are, after all, cognisant of the human impact of their tactics, despite continued refusal to modify tactics in the face of famine. “If you move from negligence to recklessness and you continue with recklessness in the knowledge of the impact it’s having on the civilian population, eventually a judge will be able to see intent on your part,” asserts Wayne Jordash, the head of Global Rights Compliance .

As it stands, the international community lacks even a taxonomy for the acts that constitute starvation.[4] One entry point into accounting for mass starvation is the landmark UNSC resolution 2417, which highlights that: “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime.” The World Peace Foundation in partnership with Global Rights Compliance are launching a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to analyse how the law might be utilised to effectively prosecute individuals for crimes of starvation, and advocating for the development of this body of law. Testing the limits of the law in furtherance of ending impunity for starvation-related crimes is essential in order to start to stem the use of hunger as a weapon of war. Through a concerted focus on the legal and factual, demands raised by mass starvation, especially with regard to the direct impact of armed conflict on food security, UNSC 2417 will deliver more than only aspiration in this much neglected field. The collective determination ought to make mass starvation unthinkable; for global leaders in a position to inflict it or fail to prevent it, to act to avoid it and to ensure that the public demands nothing less.

Disarming those using food as a weapon of war, through expert legal analysis, advocacy and accountability, can contribute to a decrease in civilians currently suffering from conflict induced food-insecurity, and in turn ensure that starvation no longer features as our employee of the month. To hear the World Food Programme and Global Rights Compliance discussing this month’s employee please contact us for our speaking schedule. September’s starvation employee of the month will be featured at two high level events – at the Human Rights Council’s 39th session on 12 September 14.00-15.00 and at the UN General Assembly Week on 25 September 18.30-20.00pm.

Starvation could be abolished and never again be an employee of the month.



[1] Human Rights Council, “Situation of human rights in Yemen, including violations and abuses since September 2014”, 17 August 2018, Annex II, para. 14.

[2] Ibid., Annex II, para. 15.

[3] Ibid., para. 55.

[4] Alex de Waal, ‘Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine’, [2018], Polity Press.

Featured photo: Global Rights Compliance logo

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