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Starvation as a Method of Warfare - Sarah Jacobs


Having access to food every day is, for many of us, one of the most normal and obvious things. However, unfortunately, 811 million people suffer from hunger worldwide which corresponds to a number of people almost three times bigger than the US population. A very common reason for hunger situations is violent conflict and war; however, sometimes hunger is not only a consequence of war but is used as a method of warfare. In this article, I want to explain to you how starvation is used to win wars and how intentional starvation is addressed by laws.

Conley and de Waal (2020) describe different methods of how starvation is used as a tactic in wars, and I have added some past and contemporary examples to illustrate them. Starvation can be used as a method of warfare to…

…exterminate (a part of) a population.

Starvation can be used to kill masses of people which corresponds to an act of genocide. A very historic example is the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932-34). To establish their communist vision in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union nationalized all farms and fields and demanded Ukrainian peasants to give a high part of their yield to the Soviet state. After the peasants started to protest and refused to deliver their yields, Stalin decided to exterminate large parts of the Ukrainian population to punish them but also to reduce the number of people who had to be supplied with food. Soviet soldiers in Ukraine started to block roads and prevent trade as well as movement to cut Ukrainian villages from the food and agricultural supplies. The famine was worsened by very cold winters, and about 3.3 million Ukrainians died in just two years.

…to weaken a population for increased control over them.

Starvation has been used by governments to intentionally reduce the human capacities of rebel groups. This counter-insurgency tactic could be seen in Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. The Ethiopian government created a famine situation in the provinces Tigray and Wollo which were the centers of a rebellion against the state’s policies. Crops and food stores were burned, markets bombarded as well as local trade and labor migration restricted, which led to at least 80,000 deaths from starvation.

…gain control over a territory.

Starvation is also used to siege regions or cities to gain territorial control over them. During the Syrian civil war, which is currently ongoing since 2011, the Syrian government sieged certain regions under the control of rebel groups and offered them either to surrender or to starve. For example, the siege of the region of Eastern Ghouta lasted from 2013 to 2018, and government forces cut water supplies as well as drastically reduced the delivery of food and medicine.

… to provide opportunities for material extraction or theft.

Wars always include possibilities of illicit enrichment at the expense of civilians. In South Sudan between 2003 and 2005, the government applied a very questionable counter-insurgency measure against rebel groups in the region Darfur. They allowed militias to invade villages and violently exploit them at will. The militias systematically destroyed water wells and agricultural reserves which forced the inhabitants to flee their inhospitable homes. At least 230,000 people died because of a lack of food and water. Using militias was especially useful for the government because the looters could pay themselves through the thefts, and the government could claim that the militias were acting outside of its control.

… ”flush out” a population.

Intentionally creating a famine can be used to force a population to leave a starved remote area and to move into a territory under the perpetrator’s control. An example provides the application of this tactic in Guatemala in 1982 and 1983. After guerilla groups carried out an insurgency against the government, federal forces attacked Maya villages which they suspected to support the guerillas. Civilians and soldiers of armed groups of the villages escaped into the mountains, and the difficult to access the territory hindered an effective attack by the government’s army.

Therefore, the army systematically destroyed mountain agriculture and livestock reserves. After two years, many people were forced to leave the mountain area due to severe hunger and illnesses into the rural areas where the government forces easily overpowered them.

Further uses of starvation include punishment of enemies or rebels, enforcement of a comprehensive transformation of society, and provision of the own army with food at expense of a famine for the civilian population.

How is starvation regulated in International Law?

Starvation has been used many times in history to influence the outcome of wars, and there are still cases where this method is used today. So, the question is, how is intentional starvation addressed by law to prevent it? International Humanitarian Law includes a principle called “Restriction on Means and Methods of Warfare” which states that “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited”. This includes attacking, destroying, removing and rendering “useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” (Additional Protocol, Article 54 (1)). Moreover, starvation is indirectly addressed by the UN Genocide Convention. It states that “deliberately inflicting on a group’s condition of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction” is considered a genocidal act. That means if perpetrators create a situation of famine, they seriously worsen a group’s living conditions, and this act can be named a genocide if the perpetrators intend to destroy the group by starvation.

As you can see, international law explicitly prohibits the use of starvation in warfare, and I can think of three reasons why it is applied nevertheless again and again until today:

1. Intentional starvation is a crime committed by a large group, and it can be very difficult to attribute individual criminal responsibility to each participant.

2. Famines often occur naturally due to climate change, economic miscalculations or other reasons, and sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a famine is an intentionally created situation or not.

3. International organizations, such as the UN, are run by an inertial bureaucratic apparatus. This circumstance combined with conflicting interests and views of members on how to react to a famine situation can slow or even hinder an effective answer preventing starvation.

It remains to be seen, whether the application of starvation will decrease in the future or whether increased food and water shortages due to globalization will contribute to making starvation a cruel and effective weapon.

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