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Time to fix the Rome Statute and add the crime of starvation in non-international armed conflicts!

Published on December 3, 2019        Author: 

This week the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ASP) meets in The Hague for its 18th session. On the agenda is the Swiss proposal to amend Article 8 (“War crimes”) of the Rome Statute by adding a non-international armed conflict version of the war crime of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. The present post discusses the Swiss proposal and explains why it is high time to amend the Rome Statute as per the Swiss proposal, and that in fact the drafting history of the Statute shows that the omission to include this crime into Article 8(2)(e) was accidental, making it even more important to now fix this mistake.

In 1998, the States negotiating the Rome Statute included the war crime of “[i]ntentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions” in Article 8(2)(c), a paragraph that lists “serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict”, “[o]ther” than the grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions included in the first paragraph, which also concern international armed conflict (IAC). As readers will know, the question whether the Rome Statute should include war crimes committed in times of non-international armed conflict (NIAC) was hotly debated by the delegates in Rome. Fortunately, with the ICTY’s case law and the scope of the ICTR Statute having paved the way, the States reached consensus to include NIAC war crimes. Violations of Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions were listed in Article 8(2)(c), and a large number of the ‘other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in times of international armed conflict’, listed in Article 8(2)(b) of the ICC Statute, were reproduced in Article 8(2)(e), which relates to NIAC. However, among the crimes that were not reproduced was the war crime of starvation and impeding humanitarian access.

The failure to do so has been criticised for good reason (e.g., Werle, Kress, and more recently, Bartels, and D’Alessandra and Gillett). In addition to the war crimes related to prohibited weapons (addressed below), the only other violations not included for NIAC are the conduct of hostilities crimes Article 8(2)(c)(ii), intentionally directing attacks at civilian objects, Article 8(2)(b)(iv), the crime of causing excessive collateral damage, and Articles 8(2)(viii), (xiv), and (xv). The last three provisions deal with occupation and “nationals of the hostile party”, and therefore obviously do not have a NIAC equivalent. The Additional Protocol I general prohibition to attack civilian objects and the prohibition to launch attacks that may be expected to cause incidental damage that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, which both apply during IACs, do not appear in Additional Protocol II relating to NIACs. As a result, it was hard in 1998 for the proponents of a more extensive set of NIAC crimes to argue that these prohibitions constituted customary IHL also in time of NIAC, and no NIAC versions of these war crimes were included in Article 8 (see Bartels, pp 292-293). However, the foregoing makes the omission of a NIAC crime of starvation all the more puzzling, because Additional Protocol II does explicitly prohibit the starvation of the civilian population.

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