In November 2020, a brutal civil war broke out in the Tigray region of Ethiopia between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its allies and the Tigray Defense Force (TDF). Approximately seven months into the war, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) announced that over 350,000 people in Tigray and neighboring areas were experiencing famine and that an additional 5.2 million people were facing “high levels of acute food insecurity.” Although conflict frequently disrupts food systems, in this case there are credible reports that parties to the conflict have destroyed food, crops, livestock, and civilian infrastructure such as water sources and that the Ethiopian federal government is responsible for deliberately starving civilians.
On June 8, 2022, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum convened a private roundtable to discuss potential atrocity crimes relating to deliberate starvation in Tigray, Ethiopia. This post summarizes that discussion, including the latest developments regarding crimes that have occurred and options for accountability.
Deliberate starvation under international law
International law contemplates a handful of narrow circumstances in which parties to conflict may temporarily impose restrictions on aid. However, deliberately starving civilians, including by blocking humanitarian access and denying certain services like electricity as has occurred in the Tigray region, is a war crime. It is codified as such under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In certain circumstances, it may also amount to crimes against humanity (such as murder, extermination, persecution, or other inhumane acts) or acts of genocide (such as killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part).
In September 2021, the UN stated that the Ethiopian federal government had imposed a “de-facto blockade” on Tigray. This announcement—which cohered with statements made by the Tigray regional government—prompted the Ethiopian government to expel several senior UN officials from the country. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government accused Tigray regional officials of deliberately blocking aid in a bid to discredit Prime Minister Abiy’s regime.
A humanitarian truce, yet slow progress
On March 24, 2022, the Ethiopian federal government announced an indefinite humanitarian truce with Tigray regional officials. Since then, humanitarian access to the Tigray region has slowly improved, but still falls far short of the 100 trucks per day that the UN says are needed to sustain affected communities. The needs are so urgent that the region’s main hospital has had to suspend its operations. Meanwhile, civilians have started to move south in search of food. The federal government claims that ongoing issues with humanitarian access are operational and logistical in nature and not deliberate.
Justice and accountability
Proving that a perpetrator acted with the intent to starve civilians can be difficult from a judicial and criminal responsibility perspective. Proving the requisite intent is so difficult that to date, starvation crimes have never been litigated. This is what makes the work of documentation bodies like the newly established United Nations Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia so important. Such bodies should be given sufficient resources to gather information that could be used in future potential criminal proceedings to ensure that perpetrators of deliberate starvation do not evade justice. Such information could seek to elucidate whether deliberate restrictions on aid were enforced with knowledge that it would result in starvation.
As we have previously pointed out on our blog, dozens of conflicts are unfolding around the world in which perpetrators are deliberately starving civilians not only as a war crime, but also as a tool to persecute minority groups. It is necessary to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access for affected civilian populations and to take steps to hold perpetrators of such crimes to account.