"It is often difficult to assign responsibility for starvation"

An interview with researcher Jolanda Andela (ESL) about her dissertation
Close up shot of statue of Lady Justitia holding a scale.
Two volunteers are handing out food at a food bank.
Ismael Paramo (Unsplash)

Can you hold individuals responsible if civilians are (deliberately) starved during an armed conflict? Jolanda Andela (Erasmus School of Law) investigated this in her dissertation. There is only one legal provision in the Rome Statute where starvation is explicitly mentioned. Nevertheless, the PhD candidate states that other provisions also provide sufficient starting points to prosecute those involved.

What exactly did you research?

"I looked at what international criminal law says about conflict-driven starvation. In doing so, I wanted to find out whether there are possibilities for establishing criminal responsibility and whether you can hold people responsible for this. Conflict-driven starvation implies that  food supplies have been put at risk, for example due to (specific methods of) warfare. This may include attacks on food supplies, the poisoning of water sources, or the destruction of agricultural facilities."

Pile of thick law books stacked up on a table.
Mikhail Pavstyuk (Unsplash)

And what does international criminal law say about this?

"Of the 69 underlying core crimes in the Rome Statute, only one provision explicitly mentions starvation. It states that intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is illegal. Yet, the practical application of this specific provision is rather restrained. That is due to the fact that it requires evidence of a special and high degree of intent, which may be very difficult to prove. Even if food supplies are hit, it may be difficult to prove that this was done intentionally with the aim of starving civilians as a method of warfare.

Yet you argue in your thesis that there are indeed options for holding individuals liable. Can you explain that?

"Although there is only one underlying provision where starvation is explicitly mentioned, there are numerous provisions that still provide points of departure. I have systematically mapped these in my dissertation. For instance, murder or wilful killing is illegal. This might also include situations where civilians are deliberately deprived of food, causing people to die. Still, starvation remains a tricky concept legally speaking. Whereas a clear causal link may (relatively) easily be established in case the pulling of a trigger leads to (subsequent) death, in case of starvation it is often more difficult to clearly identify those responsible. Also because a person does not starve overnight and there are numerous factors influencing the intensity of the hunger a person experiences or the starvation episode of a population."

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

"With my research, I substantiate what possibilities and obstacles exist to hold individuals criminally responsible for conflict-driven starvation. I hope it acts as a kind of handbook for judges or ICC prosecutors who decide to proceed with prosecution."

A close-up of barbed wire with an orange sunset in the background.
Антон Дмитриев (Unsplash)

Your research has been grimly topical lately. How do you view the Gaza conflict?

"I find it deeply sad. The escalation of violence started while writing my conclusion so I cite it in my preface. At one point, I received a notification about a Tweet of Israel's defence minister. In it, he indicated his intention to completely encircle Gaza and that the area would be cut off from food, electricity and water. It indicates a clear violation of international law. What I found particularly remarkable was how clearly and, above all, blatantly this was stated. It is stated in black and white."

Do you think it will lead to convictions in this case?

"Out of nearly 200 countries, 124 have accepted the Rome Statute. Israel has not ratified the Statute, as have Russia and the United States, for that matter. Palestine did ratify the Statute, which means that international crimes committed in Gaza can still be investigated.

In addition, Israel is a member of the UN of which the International Court of Justice is part. There is now a case pending against Israel brought by South Africa because they allege that there may be evidence of genocide. This case certainly has a chance of success if South Africa comes up with clear evidence, but the court can only institute proceedings against states and not individuals."

What further implications could it have?

"It seems the issue is now more on the map. This could possibly also lead to criminal proceedings in other cases. Think of Nagorno-Karabakh. Food insecurity ensued due to a road blockade from December 2022 to September 2023. Eventually, the civilian population was evacuated from the area, something that raised many questions as to its humanitarian nature. Those involved have not been held responsible (yet), but I hope this will be looked at from an (international) criminal law angle."

More information

On Friday 12 April 2024, Jolanda Andela defends her PhD dissertation 'Voedselsporen op kernbepalingen inzake internationale misdrijven: individuele strafrechtelijke aansprakelijkheid voor door gewapend conflict gedreven hongersnood'.

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