Food as a weapon of war
At the Yarmouk camp in Syria the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (“UNRWA”) can provide a family of five enough food to survive almost two weeks for less than USD $35. At least it can whenever it is allowed to enter the camp and deliver supplies. Food aid is the principal means of survival for the camp’s 18,000 Palestinian residents. Since last July, though, the camp has been under siege, with food and other humanitarian aid limited. In the month of March, UNRWA has been able to distribute food only three times. The government justifies the siege as a necessary part of its military operations against rebel groups, but while the conflict seems unlikely to end anytime soon, it has resulted in over 120 people dying of starvation in Yarmouk. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council sits paralyzed, watching the destruction play out on their television scenes in a way that should shock everyone, except perhaps Katniss Everdeen.
Yarmouk is only one of many examples of how food is used as a weapon of warfare both in and outside Syria. The Syrian government has allegedly targeted bakeries, hitting civilians waiting to buy food. In 2012, it was the Rohingya in Myanmar who were left to starve amidst sectarian violence with local Buddhist communities. In 2011, it was Sudan starving its people in the Nuba Mountain region. Syria’s government is not alone, though. Of course, the most famous incidents of starvation as a tactic of war come from the Nazi death camps and the Japanese prisoner of war camps.
Food aid itself has been used as propaganda in war, with parties hoping to purchase support by using militaries to distribute food. When aid has been poorly controlled or distributed, it has prolonged conflicts or strengthened particular parties, rather than the civilians to whom the aid is supposed to go. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan the national militaries along with the U.S. military have conflated aid and counter-terrorism, making it difficult for independent agencies to provide help without endangering their employees. This diminishes the ability of individuals to receive adequate care and increases skepticism and resistance within local populations.
International law has developed in response to past tragedies to reflect the notion that while war is hell, hellishness can be limited so that civilians do not again bear the burden of conflicts over which they have no control. But for the children of Yarmouk those lessons seem to be lost.
The long-term impact of starvation
Starvation as a method of warfare has long-term health implications for its victims. Extended periods of malnutrition can lead to the onset of Noma, a rapidly spreading disease that proves fatal in approximately 80% of the cases. A UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee report characterized the disease as “the most brutal face of poverty and malnutrition in children” resulting in “some of the worst violations of the rights of the child.” The main victims are children aged 1 to 6 years, who have an estimated survival rate of only 10 to 20 percent. By starving civilian populations, warring parties increase the likelihood of Noma. Even those children lucky enough to survive the conflict are likely to have health implications as adults. Studies of children who survived the siege of Leningrad in the 1940s and a famine in China that started in the 1950s, both of which lasted for three years, revealed long-term detrimental health effects in children: as adults, the surviving children were more likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, abnormal glucose levels, and even shortened stature.
When food aid contributes to conflict
In a controversial paper, Harvard’s Nathan Nunn and Yale’s Nancy Qian reveal some heart-wrenching concerns over the right to food and armed conflict. Their study found that, on average, food aid from the U.S. promotes and prolongs civil conflict. The study confirms several existing qualitative studies on the issue. The research focused solely on the U.S. contribution to food aid in conflicts. It determined that an increase in U.S. food aid increases the incidence, onset and duration of armed civil conflicts in recipient countries.”
While many cited the study as a reason to cease food aid in conflicts, Nunn and Qian ended the study suggesting that the problem was not in the provision of food but in its distribution. Where food aid was poorly managed, the food could be used by warring factions to increase their power during the conflict. In Yarmouk, the lessons are being implemented by UNRWA, which has at times delayed or cancelled distribution where the conditions inside the camp threatened to undermine the proper dissemination of supplies. The UNRWA’s steps are aimed at minimizing the risks, both short and long-term, to those suffering from the conflict. It is an excruciating choice to make for those who have to face the realities of food deprivation in their daily work.
The human right to food
Franklin D. Roosevelt included the “freedom from want” alongside the freedom of speech, worship and fear, as an essential human right. When adapted into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this freedom was articulated as “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food . . ..” (Article 25) It has since been incorporated into the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. One hundred sixty one states are a party to that treaty, including Syria, meaning they are legally bound to realize the right to food.
The right to food involves three simultaneous obligations to the state: respecting the right by not interfering with individuals’ access to food; protecting the right by ensuring others do not prevent access to food; and fulfilling the right, by adopting structures and policies aimed at helping provide access to food. In January 2009, the UN Secretary General stated that the right to food should be added as a third track with food aid and food security to respond to the global food crisis and food insecurity. In many conflicts, though, this has not been evident.
The not-quite war crime: Starvation in conflict
Human rights remain applicable even in times of conflict, but international law also has specific obligations on states regarding access to food in armed conflicts. Starving civilians is prohibited while warring parties have a legal duty to ensure that the food and medical supplies of the population are able to get to civilians who need them the most. They are to facilitate independent humanitarian operations whenever possible. “Tainted” aid then must not act as an impediment to real access, as was the case in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If a conflict is between two states, intentional starvation can be a war crime, prosecutable by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and by any other state in the world. But when the conflict is simply between two or more parties within a state—as is the case with Syria—starving civilians may or may not be a war crime. Also, only the state’s own tribunals have clear jurisdiction to prosecute the cases. This leaves little incentive for governments in power to stop starving people. The demand must therefore come from the outside, from the international community.
In many conflicts, as time goes by and the magnitude of the crisis grows, innocent civilians have to suffer increased levels of hunger and decreased food assistance. Thousands face the grave risk of starvation and disease without basic nutrients and medical treatment. This is the consequence of intensified war and combatants tactics that inflict misery on thousands of families. States, armed groups, and the international community need to ensure greater freedom of movement for humanitarian agencies. Military and humanitarian activities must be recognized as having distinct purposes, and aid agencies should be given the financial and practical support necessary to carry out well-organized and effective distributions so the aid does not prolong the conflict.
While the U.N.’s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos harshly criticized the Syrian government’s lack of improvement in allowing urgently and necessary aid to reach the people in Syria. Amos told the Security Council on Friday that the regime’s delay in suppression cross-border aid deliveries “arbitrary and unjustified.”
Council members said they will in the coming days and weeks discuss the “further steps” that the resolution threatens if its requirements are not met. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called the briefing “harrowing” and said the Syrian government has “utterly failed to comply” with the resolution. Adding to this analysis was the council president Sylvie Lucas, the Luxembourg ambassador, said, “On the contrary, the situation has only continued to worsen.”
The law also needs to be revised. The international community must adopt criminal accountability for the intentional starvation of civilian groups in civil wars. It is no longer appropriate to treat starvation within a state’s territory as concerning only that state. As we have recognized in the context of genocide and crimes against humanity, certain activities victimize the whole world, and in turn give the world an interest in their criminal prosecution. The world is worse off for the starvation and death in Yarmouk, and the world needs to ensure that we have the legal tools to respond appropriately in the future.
Andrew Edward Tchie is a PhD student in Government at the University of Essex. Tara Van Ho is an international human rights lawyer completing her PhD at the University of Essex. This article first appeared in Turkish Weekly, a Turkish publication. Click here to go to the original.