Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: Population Transfers and the Civilian Toll of Starvation as a Method of Warfare in Syria and South Sudan

Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: Population Transfers and the Civilian Toll of Starvation as a Method of Warfare in Syria and South Sudan

[Yousuf Syed Khan serves as the Legal/Reporting Officer with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, and previously served as the Reporting Officer/Analyst with the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.]


On 24 May 2018, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2417, recognising explicitly the link between conflict and hunger, and acknowledging and condemning – for the first time – the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. As we approach the third anniversary of this historic resolution, it is worth reflecting on how the humanitarian dilemma of food insecurity during recent armed conflicts has largely been prompted by the deliberate military strategies of warring parties.

Over the past two decades, the number of non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) has more than doubled. Recent conflicts, and particularly those not of an international character including the parallel NIAC in Syria and the NIAC in South Sudan, have been characterised by egregious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and violations and abuses of human rights. Both the UN Commissions for Syria and South Sudan, to which I have served, have documented that the deliberate starvation of civilians constituted a war crime and amounted to collective punishment during NIACs.

During periods of protracted armed conflict, the exacting toll of food insecurity on vulnerable civilians cannot be overstated: as highlighted by the UN Secretary General last month, 60 per cent of Syrian women, men, and children are currently at risk of going hungry. In South Sudan, recent statistics published by the World Food Programme (WFP) echo a comparably stark reality: over half of the population (5.8 million civilians) is currently food insecure, of which 1.8 million are severely food insecure. The Executive Director of the WFP recently reiterated that the deliberate starvation of civilians in South Sudan may amount to a war crime.

Wartime hunger emanates from several causes, including both intentional and indirect factors. In certain parts of Syria and South Sudan, however, acute food insecurity has been almost entirely human-induced. This has been the result of counterinsurgency tactics aimed at the forcible relocation of unsympathetic populations. Stated another way, the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in Syria and South Sudan has been intrinsically linked to forced displacement as a war crime, or to the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer. Both States have sought to reclaim territory by starving the civilian support bases of insurgent groups. This tactic is known in Syria as “kneel or starve”, and in South Sudan could be referred to as the “politicisation of famine”.

Notably, UNSC 2417 recognised this pattern of conduct, by stating that the impact of armed conflict “on food security can be direct, such as displacement from land, livestock grazing areas, and fishing grounds” and further by stressing that “food insecurity can be drivers of forced displacement”. This contribution explores the extent to which the phenomena of starvation and attendant population transfers have been used as a deliberate military strategy in both Syria and South Sudan.

The use of starvation to effect population transfers


In early 2012, and as the Syrian conflict steadily progressed, non-State actors began proliferating with the benefit of external support. Insurgent groups formed fluid and often opportunistic alliances, gaining strength and forcing the Syrian Government to rapidly cede territory. From November 2012 and over the next six years, Syrian Government forces laid siege to dozens of opposition-held areas. The use of siege warfare across Syria was carried out in a planned and coordinated manner, and was characterised by repeated attacks against objects indispensable to the survival (OIS) of the civilian population, including open-air markets, bakeries, and venues offering humanitarian assistance. In two emblematic examples, the Syria Commission was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to dedicate its reports to the civilian impact of sieges, namely those in Aleppo and eastern Ghouta.

During the siege of eastern Ghouta for example – the longest running siege in modern history – the Syria Commission documented how Government forces closed crossing points, cutting off civilian access to food, and simultaneously heightened aerial and ground attacks. Although elaborate networks of manmade tunnels were built in the enclave to secure access to food, Government forces had the upper hand and therefore many tunnels were closed as part of ceasefire negotiations. By mid-April 2018 – when eastern Ghouta was recaptured, the siege was lifted, and populations were removed – hungry civilians were unable to endure the prolonged use of starvation and attrition warfare.

Overall, the rise of sieges waged by Syrian Government forces evolved with the ultimate aim of displacing belligerents and unsympathetic populations to one isolated governorate in the northwest of the country (Idlib). Between 2015 and 2018, the Syria Commission found that at least seven sieges were laid with this underlying aim, including in Aleppo, Damascus, and Rif Damascus governorates. The tactic of starvation and population transfers worked, as a cursory glance at the current Syrian theatre demonstrates, Idlib is the last major opposition redoubt.

There are three reasons why the use of sieges and starvation across Syria were so successful militarily: (i) sieges allowed the Syrian State to erode the viability of civilian life under opposition control; (ii) hungry civilians became discouraged and then turned against the armed groups “governing” them; and (iii) weakened insurgent groups and their beleaguered social support bases were then forced to capitulate and sign evacuation agreements, whereby entire populations would be relocated, or forcibly displaced, to the more militarily strategic environment of Idlib.

South Sudan

Similar patterns of military tactics can be found in the context of the South Sudanese conflict. As noted in its report “There is nothing left for us”: starvation as a method of warfare in South Sudan, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan described how Government forces deliberately starved civilians as an instrument to punish unsympathetic or non-aligning communities, including farmers and cultivators, in order to force their displacement from ancestral lands. Between 2016 and 2019, during at least seven battles waged in Western Bahr el Ghazal state, Government forces systematically attacked, destroyed, removed, and rendered useless objects indispensable to the survival of the population, including harvests such as sorghum, cassava, and okra, and livestock including chicken, cattle, and goats. Once Government forces retook the land from unsympathetic population bases who were forced to flee their homes, they then expropriated it to the benefit of their own loyal communities.

In one illustrative example, Government forces attacked Mboro town in June 2018. They torched at least 200 civilian homes, and forced civilians deep into the bush to hide. Government soldiers also systematically destroyed or dismantled water pumps used by locals for boreholes in Mboro, depriving them of access to potable water for consumption and sanitation. The South Sudan Commission found that Government authorities “were staging the return of ethnic Dinkas into an area historically populated by the Fertit community”. The Commission deemed these and similar acts to amount to collective punishment and possibly the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer.

The way forward

Based only on the foregoing examples, it is clear that the marked proliferation of NIACs over the past two decades and the use of starvation as a method of warfare demand international concern. Aside from adopting Resolution 2417, however, and while it did acknowledge the related use of displacement, the Security Council’s response to starvation as a method of warfare has been negligible.

Over the past 15 years, the international community has increasingly relied upon UN mandated mechanisms comprising commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions, and investigations to help address violations of IHL and gross violations of human rights during periods of civil unrest, conflict, and post-conflict contexts. While the thorough reporting by the UN Commissions for Syria and South Sudan on the use of starvation as a method of warfare serves as emblematic examples of the benefits of these mechanisms, it also highlights a serious impunity gap.

Supporting and strengthening the objectives of Resolution 2417 would thus require a holistic approach to tackling this impunity gap and paying more attention to the phenomena of starvation and attendant population transfers, for which some headway may be on the horizon. Specialised war crimes units throughout Europe have pursued at least 92 cases involving persons allegedly responsible for atrocity crimes in Syria, and the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic has thus far received at least 66 requests for assistance from the judicial authorities of 11 States. For its part, and pursuant to its mandate, the Syria Commission has reportedly been approached by 60 jurisdictions seeking information and has provided such information in numerous on-going cases. While the extent to which any of these developments involve starvation crimes remains to be seen, and in the absence of further Security Council action, these accountability developments may be a positive direction towards closing the impunity gap.

Likewise, the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan includes clarifying responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes, and to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes, including the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and other transitional justice mechanisms. The Commission has compiled dossiers on 111 individuals with command or superior responsibility, including high-ranking military officials.

Based on the findings and evidence collected by these two UN mandated mechanisms, judicial bodies have detailed records upon which to draw for background, pattern analysis, the identification of perpetrators, and further investigations as it concerns starvation as a method of warfare. Time will tell how this information will be used to address the victims’ rights to truth, justice, and accountability.

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