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Humanity vs sovereignty

International Criminal Court Statute jurisdiction expanded to war crime of starvation in non-international conflicts, enhancing ability to reach those in need of food assistance
, Simona Beltrami

The Hague, 6 December 2019. The winter sky hangs heavy over the city. Inside the premises of the International Criminal Court (ICC), representatives of its122 state parties vote unanimously to extend the Court's jurisdiction to the use of starvation as a weapon of war — a recognized war crime — in non-international conflicts.

While its significance may be obscure to most, the decision to amend the Court's statute has potentially life-saving implications for civilians trapped in civil conflicts.

Conflict and hunger fuel each other in a vicious circle. In the photo, an internally displaced child in Burkina Faso. Photo: WFP/Marwa Awad

The majority of the world's hungry — some 821 million people — live in countries at war. In many cases, these conflicts are non-international in nature. Until the recent statute amendment, however, the ICC could only prosecute individuals who committed the crime in international conflicts.

"The extension of the Court's jurisdiction sends a categorical message that denying civilians access to food is unacceptable in any circumstance and that there can be concrete consequences for those who do this in the context of a civil war," says Brian Lander, Deputy Director of the World Food Programme (WFP)'s Office in Geneva.

One place where this could enhance WFP's ability to reach people in need is South Sudan. Here too, the sky hangs heavy. Torrential rains in the past month have added to the woes of communities already worn out by prolonged drought and years of conflict, threatening to push some 5.5 million people into hunger.

Humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas can stave off famine. In the picture: Unity State, South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

The country boasts WFP's first ‘access team' — a group of specialists who facilitate humanitarian access to areas cut off by fighting. In mid-2018, the team cleared the way for a multi-sector response in conflict-affected counties of Central Unity State, where famine had been declared the year before. A large part of the negotiation was to promote respect for the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

"Knowing that those who use food as a weapon of war, including by blocking the delivery of aid, could be brought to justice adds muscle to our arguments when we negotiate access to populations isolated by internal conflict," Lander says.

For besieged populations (in the photo: Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, 2016) humanitarian food assistance is a lifeline, and blocking it constitutes a war crime. Photo: WFP/Hussam Al Saleh

"The unanimous support for this amendment, tabled by Switzerland in August this year, is further evidence that states see the strong linkages between conflict and hunger," he adds.

In a historic vote in May 2018, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution which, among other things, condemns the use of starvation as a weapon of war and calls for humanitarian personnel to be granted safe and unhindered access to civilians in armed conflicts.

"The willingness of ICC state parties to take steps to ensure that those who use food as a weapon of war face justice, regardless of the type of conflict that this occurs in, is a victory of the principle of humanity over that of state sovereignty, and an important step in trying to break the vicious circle of conflict and hunger," Lander concludes.