Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
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Commentary of 1987 
Protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population
[p.1455] Article 14 -- Protection of objects indispensable to the
survival of the civilian population

General remarks

4790 Article 14 implements the general principle of protection laid down in Article 13 ' (Protection of the civilian population). '

[p.1456] 4791 The term "starvation" means the action of subjecting people to famine, i.e., extreme and general scarcity of food. (1) The object of this provision is to prohibit the deliberate provocation of such a situation and to preserve the means of subsistence of the civilian population, in order to give effect to the protection to which it is entitled. It is suitable to interpret the aim of this article in the light of Article 17 ' (Prohibition of forced movement of civilians) ' and Article 18 ' (Relief societies and relief actions), ' which may facilitate the determination of its scope as they, too, are a means of applying the general principle.

4792 This article is a simplified version of Article 54 ' (Protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population), ' paragraph 1, and the first half of paragraph 2, of Protocol I, worded in similar terms.

4793 The prohibition on using starvation against civilians, and the specific protection given to objects indispensable to the survival of the population, are new rules supplementing and developing existing law. Nevertheless, the problem had already been broached in the Conventions. In fact, Article 23 of the fourth Convention already provided for assistance to be given to the most vulnerable categories of the civilian population, particularly in the form of foodstuffs. (2) Mention should also be made of Article 53 of the same Convention, which is aimed at safeguarding property necessary for existence of civilians under occupation. (3)

4794 As regards the law applicable to non-international armed conflicts, this is a new rule, though it is really only a specific application of common Article 3 , which imposes on parties to the conflict the obligation to guarantee humane treatment for all persons not participating in hostilities, and in particular prohibits violence to life. (4) Such specific legal protection for objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population is all the more important as Protocol II, (5) unlike Protocol I, (6) does not protect civilian objects in general.

First sentence

4795 The prohibition on using starvation against civilians is a rule from which no derogation may be made. A form of words whereby it would have been possible to make an exception in case of imperative military necessity was not adopted. (7)

[p.1457] 4796 This rule was laid down for the benefit of civilians. Consequently the use of blockade and siege as methods of warfare remain legitimate, provided they are directed exclusively against combatants. (8)

4797 It will be recalled that a blockade consists of disrupting the maritime trade of a country or one of its coastal provinces. A siege consists of encircling an enemy location, cutting off those inside from any communication in order to bring about their surrender. A blockade is basically aimed at preventing supplies required for the fighting, i.e., military ' matériel, ' from reaching the enemy forces and is not directed specifically against civilians. However, the latter are in fact often the first to be affected, particularly children. The same is true of siege, from which civilians are the first to suffer. In some cases they may be evacuated for humanitarian reasons, but up to now there has been no express rule of law forbidding besieging forces to let civilians die of starvation.

4798 Thus the prohibition on starving civilians might seem unrealistic to some, but this is by no means the case. Protocol II is conceived in such a way that this humanitarian rule can be respected whatever the circumstances. Article 18 ' (Relief societies and relief actions), ' paragraph 2, actually provides for the organization of international relief actions in favour of the civilian population when the latter is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of supplies essential for its survival. Between them these two provisions, which are closely linked, do not allow the argument of military necessity to be used to justify starving the civilian As soon as there is a lack of indispensable objects, the international relief actions provided for in Article 18 ' (Relief societies and relief actions) ' should be authorized to enable the obligation following from Article 14 to be respected.

4799 The text refers to methods of combat, while Protocol I, Part III, is entitled "Methods and Means of Warfare". The ICRC draft proposed to use the same expression "Methods and Means of Combat" in both instruments. (9) In Protocol I the Conference, however, preferred the term "Methods and Means of Warfare" because the term "combat" can be given a narrower interpretation than the word "warfare". (10) On the other hand, it was considered inappropriate to refer to warfare in an instrument concerning non-international armed conflicts. (11) Yet the Working Group did not attempt to define either of the words used in this first sentence. (12) It was merely a matter of adapting the erminology and warfare was [p.1458] considered to be a more appropriate term in the context of an armed conflict between States. (13) Starvation is prohibited as a method of combat, i.e., when it is used as a weapon to destroy the civilian population. It should be noted that even if starvation were not subject to an official legal prohibition, it is nowadays no longer an acceptable phenomenon, irrespective of how it arises (natural disaster or induced by man). Increasingly public opinion and public conscience have forced governments to face their responsibilities and prompted the international community to organize relief actions, which are never sufficient in view of the scale of the problem worldwide.

Second sentence

4800 This sentence develops the principle prohibiting starvation from being used against civilians by pointing out the most usual ways in which starvation is brought about. By using the word "therefore" certain acts are emphasized, but the list is not exhaustive. Starvation can also result from an omission. To deliberately decide not to take measures to supply the population with objects indispensable for its survival in a way would become a method of combat by default, and would be prohibited under this article.

4801 The verbs "attack", "destroy", "remove" and "render useless" are used to cover all eventualities, including pollution of water supplies by chemical agents or the destruction of a harvest by defoliants. (14)

4802 As indicated by the words "such as", the list of protected objects is illustrative only. In fact, an exhaustive list might well have resulted in omissions or in making a somewhat arbitrary choice of objects. (15)

4803 "Objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population" means objects which are of basic importance for the population from the point of view of providing the means of existence.

4804 Article 18 ' (Relief societies and relief actions), ' paragraph 2, mentions "supplies essential for [...] survival". It may be appropriate to point out that these two expressions are synonymous each in its own context.

4805 The terms "foodstuffs" and "agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs" must be understood in the broadest sense to cover the infinite variety of needs of the populations of different geographical areas throughout the world.

4806 The text does not distinguish between objects intended for the armed forces and those intended for civilians. Except for the case where supplies are specifically intended as provisions for combatants, it is prohibited to destroy or attack objects indispensable for survival, even if the adversary may benefit from them. The prohibition would be meaningless if one could invoke the argument that members of the government's armed forces or armed opposition might make use of the [p.1459] objects in question. Of course, the possibility cannot be excluded that, for example, a source of drinking water might at some point be used by soldiers.

4807 What is the position if such objects hinder the enemy in observation or attack? This might be the case if crops were very tall and were suitable for concealment in a combat zone. It is prohibited to attack or destroy objects with the aim of starving out civilians. However, if the objects are used for military purposes by the adversary, they may become a military objective and it cannot be ruled out that they may have to be destroyed in exceptional cases, though always provided that such action does not risk reducing the civilian population to a state of starvation. (16)

4808 Is there a general obligation to respect such objects in the whole of the territory, i.e., not only those situated in the part of the territory controlled by the adversary, but also those in one's own territory?

4809 When the ICRC's expert submitted the article to the Committee, this question was answered affirmatively. (17) During the discussions, this interpretation, which was the object of lengthy discussion in connection with the corresponding article of Protocol I, was neither confirmed nor dismissed with regard to Protocol II. It was argued that in an international armed conflict a State retained freedom of action in the territory under its own control, and that consequently it could not entirely be ruled out that the State would destroy everything on its own side under a "scorched earth" policy in case of imperative military necessity, for example, to halt the advance of enemy troops.

4810 As regards Protocol II, two points deserve a mention: one of a legal and one of a practical nature. In becoming a Contracting Party to the Conventions and to Protocol II, a State anyway accepts for purely humanitarian purposes that certain rules will be applicable to its own nationals within the confines of its own territory. If the characteristics of this sort of situation are taken into consideration, it is clear that objects in the possession of one of the parties may change hands rapidly, several times back and forth, depending on what part of the territory it controls.

4811 Further, it is not admissible that one of the parties could destroy or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of part of the population living in the part of the territory under its control because it suspected that the latter supported or sympathized with the adversary. It should also be recalled that collective punishments and pillage are prohibited by the Protocol. (18)

4812 To deprive the civilian population of objects indispensable to its survival usually results in such a population moving elsewhere as it has no other recourse than to flee. Such movements are provoked by the use of starvation, which is in such cases equivalent to the use of force. However, enforced movement is prohibited, except for the cases provided for in Article 17 ' (Prohibition of forced movement of civilians). '

[p.1460] 4813 In cases where forced displacements are allowed under that article, "all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition". If there are shortages, or if the means to organize relief are lacking, the responsible authorities should have recourse to international relief actions, as provided in Article 18 ' (Relief societies and relief actions), ' paragraph 2.

' S.J. '

* (1) [(1) p.1456] The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1978), pp. 724 and 2111;

(2) [(2) p.1456] Supplemented by Art. 70 of Protocol I (Relief actions); cf. supra, p. 815;

(3) [(3) p.1456] Supplemented by Art. 69 of Protocol I (Basic needs in occupied territories); cf. supra, p. 811;

(4) [(4) p.1456] Common Article 3, paragraph 1, sub-para (1)(a) infine. It should also be noted that starvation may entail the total or partial disappearance of whole groups of people, which could amount to genocide, if brought about intentionally. Genocide is a crime against humanity, prohibited and punishable under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 9 December 1948, which applies to any form of genocide, including that a government in its own territory against its own nationals. See ' The United Nations and Human Rights, ' New York, 1973, p. 16;

(5) [(5) p.1456] An intervention by the delegation of the Holy See made it possible for this article to be adopted by consensus in a plenary meeting of the Conference. See O.R. VII, pp. 135-138, CDDH/ SR.52, paras. 79-94;

(6) [(6) p.1456] Art. 52 Protocol I, and the commentary thereon, supra, p. 629;

(7) [(7) p.1456] ' CE 1972, Commentaries, ' p. 40;

(8) [(8) p.1457] According to the Rapporteur of Committee III, the prohibition on starving civilians does not change the law applicable to naval blockade (O.R. XV, p. 279, CDDH/215/Rev.1). That law is laid down in the London Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval War of 24 February 1909, which sets out the conditions for applying a blockade. That Declaration was signed by ten countries and is taken to represent customary law, although it was never ratified. See also commentary Art. 54, Protocol I, supra, p. 651. We should point out that in traditional international law, the declaration of a blockade in an internal armed conflict is equivalent to the recognition of belligerency, supra, p.1321. However, "blockade" is a concept of public international law applicable in international armed conflict. That concept is only referred to in the context of Protocol II by analogy with certain factual circumstances;

(9) [(9) p.1457] ' Commentary Drafts ', p. 41 (Protocol I, Part III) and p. 152 (Protocol II, Part IV);

(10) [(10) p.1457] O.R. XV, p. 267, CDDH/215/Rev.1, para. 20;

(11) [(11) p.1457] Ibid., p. 394, CDDH/236/Rev.1, para. 57;

(12) [(12) p.1457] Ibid. p. 267, CDDH/215/Rev.1, para. 20;

(13) [(13) p.1458] See commentary Art. 35, para. 3, Protocol I, supra, p. 410, which specifies that the term "methods of warfare" also covers combat, a term which is, for that matter, used several times in that Protocol (Art. 18, para. 3; Art. 65, para. 3);

(14) [(14) p.1458] O.R. XIV, p. 136, CDDH/III/SR.16, para. 41;

(15) [(15) p.1458] Ibid., p. 137, para. 46;

(16) [(16) p.1459] See Art. 54, para. 3(b), Protocol I and the commentary thereon, supra, p. 650;

(17) [(17) p.1459] O.R. XIV, p. 136, CDDH/III/SR.16, para. 43;

(18) [(18) p.1459] Art. 4, para. 2(b) and (g), supra, pp. 1374 and 1376;