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Can Incidental Starvation of Civilians be Lawful under IHL?

Published on March 26, 2019        Author: 
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Two recent posts in the recent joint blog series on international law and armed conflict concluded that the siege of a defended locality was permitted under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)/International Humanitarian Law (IHL), but subject to a series of constraints regarding the protection of civilians. The prohibitions on starvation of civilians (in Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol I Art 54, Additional Protocol II Art 14 and in customary law, applicable both to international and non-international armed conflicts) were in particular analysed in Gloria Gaggioli’s excellent post. Given that ‘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’ (ICRC Customary IHL database, Rule 53), she notes that it is in practice very difficult to prove that the purpose of a siege is the starvation of civilians. However, she goes on to argue, persuasively, that if a siege can be construed as an ‘attack’ the proportionality rule would apply, thereby requiring any incidental starvation of civilians to be assessed against the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

As starvation is so central to much of the suffering inflicted on civilian populations in today’s city sieges in the Middle East, I want to return to the question of whether starvation of civilians needs to be the purpose (or even a purpose) of a belligerent to fall within the prohibition and whether incidental starvation may be lawful (if it is not disproportionate), by way of offering some thoughts as to what a legal analysis of the purpose of the relevant siege tactics might look like. If the prohibition on the starvation of civilians was in practice reduced to a prohibition on excessive starvation of civilians, this would obviously severely restrict the protection offered by Art 54 API and Art 14 APII.

We need to ask, firstly, what is the actual conduct denoted by the term ‘siege’ and, secondly, what is the military objective to which starvation of civilians is incidental? Read the rest of this entry…

 
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