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Criminalizing Starvation in an Age of Mass Deprivation in War: Intent, Method, Form, and Consequence

By: Tom Dannenbaum

Mass starvation in war is resurgent. Across a range of conflicts, belligerents have attacked farmers and humanitarian workers; destroyed, looted, or rendered unusable food and food sources; and cut off besieged populations from the external supply of essential goods. Millions have been left in famine or on the brink thereof. Increasingly, this has elicited calls for accountability. However, traditional criminal categories are not promising in this respect. The situation and nature of objects indispensable to survival is such that they typically provide sustenance to both civilians and combatants; the conduct that deprives people of those objects often involves acting on the objects, rather than acting directly on the affected persons; and the causal chain from deprivation to civilian suffering is long and complex.

Appropriately, then, attention has turned instead towards the recently codified and largely untested war crime of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. Whether and how this framework can underpin a legal response to mass deprivation hinges on how key debates as to the crime’s meaning are resolved. Entering those debates, this Article debunks the common view that the starvation crime attaches only to conduct that seeks to weaponize civilian suffering. Instead, it presents an alternative theory according to which the crime should be understood transitively as focused primarily on the act of deprivation, rather than the outcome it produces. This approach would reshape how to think about the crime, with particularly acute implications for the regulation of sieges and blockades.


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