CHERRY VALLEY, Illinois — Laying siege on a city, especially when military starvation tactics have permission to ravage its population, is a power move that has its roots in ancient times. Today, however, many developing countries deem the popular strategy as a war crime, some of which have personally experienced this maneuver during conflicts.
Right now, the Russian Army besieges a slew of cities in its ongoing war on Ukraine. In that country, the war has resulted in a twofold food crisis threatening both its citizens and those dependent on its cereal exports. Ukrainians living in surrounding cities are starving, their access to much-needed staples stifled by opposing forces. But also, the quantity of grain the country has stored up, which Ukraine is not exporting at present due to the onslaught of Russian forces, has the potential to alleviate some food crises in other countries. Ukraine supplies approximately 10% of worldwide wheat exports. For those within and without, Ukraine’s current immobility has led to food inaccessibility.
A History of Sieges, Starving and Political Responses
Throughout modern history up to the present day, military starvation tactics continue to play out in battles across the world. “An army marches on its stomach,” the old adage goes; it remains as true today. Under President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, the U.S. established a code that promoted starvation of enemy troops, regardless of whether or not they were armed, according to The Conversation.
Under Hitler’s rule of Germany, Der Hungerplan – the Hunger Plan – became a successful operation that effectively starved about 7 million Soviet and Jewish civilians to death, not to mention the slow, creeping, gnawing hunger that resulted in so many emaciated Jews and gentiles rounded up in Nazi concentration camps. War is like a raging conflagration that quickly eats up valuable resources, stealing them out of the mouths of those in need.
As leaders composed and eventually agree on the Geneva Convention, Allied Powers like the U.S. and the U.K. fought to retain allowance for wartime starvation methods, according to The Conversation. Finally, in the following decades, the world started to change its views on the sore subject.
Governments Start to See Starvation as a War Crime
Nigeria, a developing country that still had 40% of its population dwelling in poverty as of 2020, has long struggled with getting food to its citizens. In 1967, a civil war broke out in the country. In an essay, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training related that “War began on June 6 and lasted three bloody years, sparking a massive humanitarian crisis as thousands of Nigerians starved to death or perished from preventable diseases.”
The deadly war garnered international attention. Then, in the early 1970s, several food crises in Bangladesh received a good deal of public concern. Eventually, in 1977, global powers added further measures to the Geneva Conventions; both prohibited starving civilians “as a method of warfare,” The Conversation reported.
Later, at the close of the 20th century, the International Criminal Court Statute established the use of such cruel means as a war crime in international disputes. Many countries have also individually cracked down on the starvation of civilians during wartime, labeling the maneuver a war crime.
“Despite these legal advances,” The Conversation stated, “starvation crimes have been evident in recent or current conflicts in Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and now Ukraine.” Armies have either confiscated food or barred access to it.
Famine in Ethiopia
One of the worst war-induced famines of today is the Ethiopian government’s siege on Tigray. The conflict, which amounts to an ongoing civil war, began in November 2020 and has continued for more than a year and a half. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), in January 2022, 45% of the child population of Tigray had nutritional supplements within a 30-day period prior to the survey. The same month, WFP discovered that 83% of Tigrayans are food insecure.
The World Food Programme’s Efforts
Large-scale organizations, including the World Food Programme (WFP), have been instrumental in aiding communities caught in these conflicts that deprive them of basic necessities. “The approval…of resolution 2417 was such a breakthrough moment,” said Margot van der Velden, Head of the Emergencies Department at WFP. Van der Velden is referring to a move on the part of U.N. authorities that broadens the outreach of humanitarian aid to civilians in danger from military starvation tactics.
Since the passing of the resolution in 2018, new commissions are springing up addressing various starvation problems including those involving deliberate starvation. In war-torn Ukraine, the WFP has helped 3.6 million people in need of food as of May 2022.
While many tackled defining military starvation tactics as a war crime at an international and, in some cases, the national level, it still requires work to improve. The Conversation suggests that international bodies conduct investigations into ongoing crises, such as those unraveling in Tigray and Ukraine and take legal action where possible.
While the world’s wars are not coming to an end and countries are not following legal parameters, there are international agencies, like those associated with the U.N., fighting for siege-style warfare to cease. Meanwhile, organizations like WFP are supplying food to millions in need.
– John Tuttle