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The Rise of Siege and Starvation as Weapons of War

UNSC Arria Formula Meeting on Protection of Humanitarian and Medical personnel


Monday’s Arria formula meeting at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the protection of humanitarian and medical personnel hosted by the French and the German Government should be commended. The meeting on 1 April 2019 focused on three key areas related to Global Rights Compliance (GRC) and the World Peace Foundation’s “Accountability for Mass Starvation” project importance of respect for international humanitarian norms related to the protection of humanitarian operations and the devastating impact of obstructions of humanitarian aid on the civilian population.


Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, addressed the UNSC, together with ICRC’s president Peter Maurer and a coalition of humanitarian agencies including Action Against Hunger and Save the Children, who GRC and the WPF have been collaborating with.


Mr. Lowcock noticed that in today’s conflicts combatants have increasingly resorted to siege and starvation as weapons of war, making hunger levels increase after decades of decline. He also outlined that wars are marked by more direct attacks against humanitarian and medical workers and their facilities. The World Health Organization reported 388 attacks against health personnel or facilities in 2018, resulting in more than 300 deaths and 400 injuries.


Mr. Lowcock suggested four key proposals to the UNSC, which could generate greater respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and safeguard humanitarian space:

1) promoting policies and practices to strengthen adherence to IHL;

2) broadening and deepening understanding and acceptance of existing rules, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols;

3) adopt clear and simplified procedures to facilitate humanitarian access;

4) promote the universalization of international humanitarian law and human rights treaties; and

5) accountability.


Importantly for GRC and WFP’s work, Mr Lowcock focused on the need to promote accountability for individuals who obstruct humanitarian operations, stating that: “States really need to do much better in holding individuals to account when they commit serious violations of IHL.” Mr. Lowcock called on States and the UNSC to strengthen national capacity to carry out impartial, independent investigations into allegations of war crimes and to prosecute suspects when the evidence justifies that.


GRC and the WPF’s upcoming Spring Expert Compendium featuring five policy papers on starvation, will include a paper on the humanitarian dilemmas, addressing the issue of how humanitarian actors should respond to starvation crimes, including both the perpetration of such crimes, and the increasing salience of the international agenda of demanding accountability for such crimes.


The increasing recognition and advocacy across high-level UNSC platforms on starvation as a method of warfare, including the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and the link between famine and conflict is much needed. One year ago, the UNSC adopted its landmark Resolution 2417(2018) (UNSC 2417), stating that “Starvation as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime”. GRC and the WPF through their Project “Accountability for Mass Starvation”, seek to promote recognition of this crime and further accountability by delineating the elements of the crime of starvation. Enabling a better understanding of how courts, tribunals and investigative bodies could investigate, and where appropriate prosecute the use of this crime, is critical. The Project also aims at operationalising UNSC 2417, ensuring it is a Resolution with lasting impact for those affected by the deliberate use of starvation as a method of warfare.


GRC is also currently working on another proposal mentioned by Mr. Lowcock related to the need to support the systematic collection, analysis and documentation of evidence of violations of IHL, as an important part of the process towards accountability. Through the development of a unique Basic Investigative Standard Mobile App, GRC aims at enabling investigators and prosecutors to collect, protect and preserve the integrity of information and documentation gathered on crime scenes in order to build robust international crimes. The BIS App will be available for free download in May, with a Starvation BIS Manual and forthcoming App currently under development.

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