Climate Change and Security

Weaponizing Food in Armed Conflict

The causes and consequences of conflicts are often complex and include a wide array of economic, environmental, political and social factors. As seen in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan parties to conflicts often block access to resources to maintain their perceived power, especially humanitarian aid. Clayton Cheney argues against the use of food and starvation tactics as weapons of war.


The current global environment is at a point where protracted wars are accepted as tragic, unresolvable conflicts because the parties to the conflict and the international community lack the political ability to bring about peace. Violent conflict has engulfed various nations around the world for far too long, including Syria since 2011, South Sudan since 2013 and Yemen since 2015. While it is debatable whether the parties and the international community have the political will to resolve these conflicts, there should be no debate that parties to these conflicts should not be permitted to use food as a weapon of war and starvation as a tactic to weaken their perceived opponents.

Increasingly, laying siege to specific regions or populations is becoming a preferred tactic of war and this must be brought to an end. In Syria, the rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta and its approximately 350,000 civilians have been besieged by the Syrian government for four years. Syrian government forces recently tightened the siege causing food prices to spike making the population highly food insecure, a problem that will be exacerbated as winter approaches. More worryingly, there are numerous reports that the combination of malnutrition and a lack of medical supplies is leading to infant deaths.

South Sudan is another example of armed conflict where food and humanitarian assistance has been weaponized, with harmful consequences inflicting unneeded suffering on the civilian population. Since civil war erupted in the world’s youngest nation in 2013, more than four million people have been displaced from their homes, creating a highly food insecure civilian population. According to a recent UN report, the South Sudanese government has started deliberately preventing food aid from reaching areas of the country that are perceived as opposing the government’s agenda. This has resulted in the death through starvation of 164 children and elderly people between January and September 2017.

Finally, Yemen has become the world’s largest and most horrific humanitarian crisis, with 17 million people being food insecure and seven million people at risk of famine. The closure of the Sana’a airport and the major port of Hodeidah by the Saudi-led coalition following the launch of a ballistic missile from Yemen aimed at the Riyadh airport, will almost certainly increase the suffering and starvation of civilians in the country. This dire situation is compounded by the outbreak of the largest and fastest spreading cholera epidemic in modern history, with nearly one million people suffering from the disease.

As these protracted armed conflicts carry on for years, it becomes easier and easier for the international community and the public to ignore the suffering of civilians engulfed in the horrors of war. Those of us in the Western world simply attribute the conflicts to age-old sectarian or ethnic disputes that we have little ability to solve, even if we had the political motivation to do so. While this may make us feel less at fault when we fail to act, it is factually inaccurate and a morally hollow position to take. It may be true that the international community cannot solve every armed conflict and crisis in the world, but steps can be taken to ensure that food is not weaponized and starvation does not become an accepted tool of modern warfare.

International legal experts have noted that the deliberate starvation of civilian populations is not only a war crime, but also amounts to a crime against humanity. The recognition that siege tactics and the deliberate prevention of food aid from reaching civilian populations violates the principles of international humanitarian law is a welcomed assertion; however, in the absence of actual investigations and prosecutions of such international crimes, these assertions lack effectiveness and will not prevent parties to these conflicts from using starvation against civilian populations. Establishing a legal precedent for holding perpetrators of weaponizing food accountable is an essential step.

The United States should condition any additional support to the South Sudanese government on their willingness to become a signatory to the Rome Statute, which would provide the International Criminal Court (ICC) with jurisdiction over international crimes committed in the country. Efforts have been made by the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, though Russian veto has blocked these efforts on numerous occasions. Security Council resolutions should continue to be pursued in this regard, making Russia increasingly isolated on this issue.

Russia and the United States must be pressured to realize the importance of their moral obligation to prevent civilian suffering in areas of the world they exert significant influence. The Russian government has propped up the Syrian regime to the point that it is almost certain the regime will survive the Syrian Civil War. Russia should use its leverage with the Syrian regime to ensure that sufficient food and medical aid is provided to Eastern Ghouta.

The United States government has significant influence with the Saudi-led coalition. In order to regain some of the moral standing in the world that has steadily been eroding over the past year, the United States should condition any military and intelligence assistance to the coalition on the opening of the Sana’a airport and Hodeidah port to humanitarian aid. While the recent indications that Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeidah will be re-opened to allow humanitarian aid into the country is a step in the right direction, the openings of these points of entry must be long-term and allow consistent and unhindered aid to enter the country. Similarly, the United States should condition financial assistance to South Sudan on the immediate and unimpeded access for humanitarian actors in the country.

Finally, the public must not become desensitized to the horrors of ongoing conflicts around the world. We must require our governments to prioritize their ability to prevent needless suffering in conflicts that they seem unable to help resolve. While armed conflicts may be an inevitable aspect of the international environment, the starvation of large civilian populations does not have to be an accepted part of this equation. To date, there has been a lack of legal judgment against perpetrators of starvation-related atrocities, but history will not fail to judge these perpetrators nor will it fail to judge the international community and general public if they stay silent in the face of these international crimes.

Clayton Cheney is an attorney and part-time student in the MS in Global Affairs program at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He has a background in international human rights law and his current studies focus on transnational security and energy issues.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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