On May 24 2018, the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the use of food insecurity and starvation as a tactic of war. It was the first time the Council had ever addressed the issue, acknowledging a threat to the lives of tens of millions of people. Aimed at countries currently engaged in international or civil wars, the resolution implores all parties to leave food stocks, farms, markets, and other distribution mechanisms intact. It demands parties in conflict permit humanitarian aid workers unimpeded access to populations in dire need and states that “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime.”
Ending hunger and extreme food insecurity features among the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015. Worldwide, the number of hungry and malnourished people had been declining for at least two decades but began rising after 2015. Experts believe conflicts and wars, along with weather events associated with climate change, are the main reasons for this setback. Among the 815 million people suffering from chronic malnutrition in 2016, 60 percent lived in areas affected by armed conflict.
Wars are inherently violent and harmful, but destruction of resources can sometimes create more catastrophic harm than bombs and bullets. Warring parties may plunder an enemy’s food supply, deliberately destroying farms, livestock, and other civilian infrastructure. Conflict can cause food shortages and the severe disruption of economic activities, threatening the means of survival of entire populations. Additionally, wars commonly trigger the displacement of huge numbers of people, cutting them off from their food supplies and livelihoods. Refugees are often vulnerable to acute food insecurity as well as disease. Alternately, if people remain in their homes, surrounding armies can trap people inside a village, city, or neighborhood and deprive them of food, medicine, and other vital resources until they surrender. Many conflict zones desperately need humanitarian aid, but increasingly, one or both parties in a conflict may block relief operations from reaching starving populations or even carry out attacks against humanitarian organizations.
Armed conflict can certainly bring about dangerous conditions of food insecurity, but some scholars argue the reverse is also true: Food insecurity can precipitate violent political conflict. Most often, it is only one among several causal factors, but a sudden change in the availability or price of basic foodstuffs can trigger an explosion of social unrest. A famous example is the French Revolution of 1789, which was fueled in large part by poor grain harvests and economic pressures that led to sharp increases in the price of bread. More recently, the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 took place during a period of historically high food prices in North Africa and the Middle East.
The history of warfare is filled with examples of military tactics deliberately used with the intent of starving enemy armies or civilian populations. During the United States Civil War, Union soldiers fought under rules of engagement known as the Lieber Code, which allowed them “to starve the hostile belligerent, armed, or unarmed.” Nazi Germany drew up a “Hunger Plan” during World War II that, had it been implemented, could have resulted in the starvation of some 20 million people or more in territory controlled by the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands did starve to death during the German siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Soviet Union, between 1941 and 1944.
Among contemporary wars, three examples serve to indicate the nuances of the problem of hunger in conflict zones:
The world’s youngest nation, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, may also be the world’s poorest. A civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013. The fighting led to 400 thousand deaths and drove four million from their homes and food sources. Conflict and poor harvests contributed to a hunger crisis in 2017. Compounding the situation was an economic crisis that incapacitated markets and sent the price of food beyond what most people could afford. Armed groups terrorized the population by raiding cattle, stealing food, setting fire to markets, and preventing farmers from cultivating land. South Sudan was also the world’s most dangerous nation for humanitarian aid workers in 2017; more than 100 of them were killed there between 2013 and 2018. Although the rival factions negotiated a tenuous ceasefire in September 2018, UN agencies have reported that well over half the population were facing acute food insecurity as of early 2019.
The brutal Syrian conflict, which began in 2011, has displaced more than 12 million people from their homes, with more than six million displaced within Syria as of July 2019. By 2016, Syrians fleeing the fighting contributed to the largest global refugee crisis since the end of World War II. The huge number of internally displaced Syrians represents the major cause of the country’s hunger crisis, along with significantly decreased agricultural production. Both sides of the conflict, the Syrian government and its rebel opponents, have used starvation as a military tactic. Repeatedly, Syrian government forces besieged areas under rebel control, placing a blockade on incoming supplies while bombing markets, hospitals, and other civilian targets. UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the human rights group Amnesty International were among those who accused the Syrian regime of carrying out war crimes.
A 2018 report by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) referred to the situation in Yemen as “the worst human-made disaster in the modern history of the world,” one that “starkly demonstrated the unequivocal link between conflict and hunger.” A rebel movement known as the Houthis captured the nation’s capital in 2014 and ousted its government. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened, ostensibly to restore the deposed government. Their bombing campaigns degraded Yemen’s fragile economy and destroyed much of its infrastructure. The country’s currency collapsed, public employees stopped receiving their pay, and food prices skyrocketed. The Saudi-Emirati coalition effectively shut down the Red Sea port at Hodeida, the main entry point for food imports, on which the population depends, and for humanitarian supplies. By the end of 2018, the UN said more than half Yemen’s population urgently needed food assistance to prevent starvation.