Side Event – “Towards accountability for the war crime of starvation in internal armed conflict” (co-hosted by Switzerland and the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law & Armed Conflict))

Overview by Phedra Neel, Research Associate PILPG NL

This event focused on the pending amendment proposed by Switzerland to include the intentional starvation of the civilian population in the Rome Statute for non-international armed conflicts (NIAC) as this is currently only considered a crime under the Rome Statute for international armed conflicts (IAC).

The moderator, Elizabeth Wilmshurst of the Chatham House, announced to cover three topics, with the use of the panel members: Brian lander, Deputy Director of the World Food Program, Gonneke de Ridder, Deputy Head of Humanitarian Affairs, Department for Stability and Humanitarian Aid, Dapo Akando, Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict and Daniel Klingele, Deputy Director if the Directorate of International Law, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs Switzerland. 

The first topic addressed was the relationship between hunger and armed conflict, especially in NIAC. Brian Lander explained that hunger has increased over the years, after decreasing for a while. Today, 812 million people are facing food insecurity and this insecurity is caused by armed conflicts. Armed conflicts changed over the years and have become more of an internal nature and more complex than ever. The conflicts cause more people to flee, which increases food insecurity and vulnerability and it takes longer to recover. The use of starvation as a means of warfare has also increased, as for example Syria so sadly shows. This change in warfare caused us to change how we deliver goods, we moved from ground suppliers to air suppliers which is more costly. 

Therefore, Brian Lander stated that it would make a difference if starvation during a NIAC would be defined as a crime. Addressing the ambiguity between IACs and NIACs is a good thing, increasing accountability is a good thing and increasing our ability to negotiate is a good thing. Reference to IHL and other legal regulations helps in these matters.

Ms. Wilmhurst asked the panelists to respond to opposing voices saying that there are already articles in the Rome Statute that could be used to prosecute the crime of starvation in a NIAC. Dapo Akanda, professor of Public International Law at Oxford University, responded that indeed technically speaking other articles could be used, but that these all include extra hurtles to overcome. For example, starvation can be part of a genocide, but then the special intent requirement needs to be established. The same goes for crimes against humanity where the need to establish a higher policy. Including a separate crime of starvation during a NIAC would eliminate these hurtles. 

Furthermore, making starvation a separate crime would increase the stigma to engage in starvation, making an analogy with sexual and gender based violence. In the end, the inclusion of a crime in the Rome Statute aims to prevent the crime from happening in the first place. A representative from the World Peace Foundation wanted to add that such a stigmatization is helpful in the recovering process for victims as well as this helps them to stop blaming themselves and recognize that they were victimized. Again the analogy was made with sexual and gender based violence.

This crime would find its basis in customary international law, as is shown by the International Committee of the Red Cross’s database on customary international law. This is especially of importance when knowing that these regulations would also apply to UN Security Council referrals.

The second topic discussed concerned the concrete steps that need to be taken to include the crime of starvation in the Rome Statute. Mr. Klingele explained that the proposal has been presented in April and that they are encouraged by the positive reactions and support. Some states however expressed concerns that there are already too many amendments to the Rome Statute. Thus, further in-depth discussion is needed and will continue next year.

Lastly, the parallel initiative in the UN Security Council was discussed. Gonneke de Ridder explained that the Netherlands, in preparation for their seat in the UNSC has drafted Resolution 2417, which was eventually adopted unanimously. This Resolution had three important goals: to affirm the link between conflict and hunger (which was surprisingly hard to agree upon), to call for action on IHL violations, and to underline the importance of safe and unhindered access for humanitarian aid relievers and lastly, to condemn those responsible for the use of starvation and to call for accountability.