Rule 53. The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
While in 1863 the Lieber Code still stated that “it is lawful to starve the hostile belligerent, armed or unarmed, so that it leads to the speedier subjection of the enemy”,
by 1919 the Report of the Commission on Responsibility set up after the First World War listed “deliberate starvation of civilians” as a violation of the laws and customs of war subject to criminal prosecution.
The prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare is codified in Article 54(1) of Additional Protocol I.
This provision was generally considered new at the time of the adoption of Additional Protocol I but since then has hardened into a rule of customary international law. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare” is a war crime in international armed conflicts.
The prohibition of starvation is set forth in numerous military manuals.
Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is an offence under the legislation of many States.
This rule is also supported by official statements and other practice.
This practice includes that of States not, or not at the time, party to Additional Protocol I.
Contrary practice has been generally condemned or has been denied by the accused party.
The prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare is contained in Additional Protocol II.
In addition, this rule is contained in other instruments pertaining also to non-international armed conflicts.
The prohibition of starvation is included in military manuals which are applicable in or have been applied in non-international armed conflicts.
Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a war crime in any armed conflict under the legislation of several States.
The prohibition of starvation was applied by the District Court of Zadar in the Perišić and Others case
It is further supported by official statements and reported practice in the context of non-international armed conflicts.
States have generally denounced alleged instances of the use of starvation as a method of warfare in non-international armed conflicts, for example, in the civil wars in Nigeria and Sudan.
The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1995 strongly condemned “attempts to starve civilian populations in armed conflicts” and stressed “the prohibition on using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.
This prohibition was also emphasized in the Plan of Action for the years 2000–2003, adopted by the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999.
Rules 54–56 are a corollary to the prohibition of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. This means that attacking objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (see Rule 54) and denying access of humanitarian aid intended for civilians in need, including deliberately impeding humanitarian aid (see Rule 55) or restricting the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel (see Rule 56) may constitute violations of the prohibition of starvation. Practice in respect of Rules 54–56 further reinforces this rule’s status as a norm of customary international law.
The prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare does not prohibit siege warfare as long as the purpose is to achieve a military objective and not to starve a civilian population. This is stated in the military manuals of France and New Zealand.
Israel’s Manual on the Laws of War explains that the prohibition of starvation “clearly implies that the city’s inhabitants must be allowed to leave the city during a siege”.
Alternatively, the besieging party must allow the free passage of foodstuffs and other essential supplies, in accordance with Rule 55. States denounced the use of siege warfare in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It was also condemned by international organizations.
Likewise, the prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare does not prohibit the imposition of a naval blockade as long as the purpose is to achieve a military objective and not to starve a civilian population. This principle is set forth in the San Remo Manual on Naval Warfare and in several military manuals which further specify that if the civilian population is inadequately provided for, the blockading party must provide for free passage of humanitarian relief supplies.
Blockades and embargoes of cities and regions have been condemned by the United Nations and other international organizations, for example, with respect to the conflicts in Afghanistan and the territories occupied by Israel.
Embargoes imposed by the United Nations itself must also comply with this rule.