North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Yemenis are being starved, and not enough is being done to stop it

Throughout Yemen’s brutal war, parties to the conflict have deprived civilians of the food and water they need to survive, starving them to death

Felicity Mulford Kate Vigneswaran
10 September 2021, 12.00am
A Yemeni child looks at his classmates as they study at a destroyed school in Taiz, Yemen
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Akram Alrasny / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In ‘Starvation Makers’, a joint report released last week, Mwatana for Human Rights (Mwatana) and Global Rights Compliance (GRC) found that members of the warring parties in Yemen – the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition, acting with the support of the Yemeni government, and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) armed group – have used starvation as a method of warfare.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that more than half of the 233,000 conflict-related deaths in Yemen are from indirect causes, including disrupted access to food and inadequate healthcare.

An historically food insecure country, Yemen has faced increasing levels of acute food shortages almost every year since the conflict began in 2014. By this year, around 400,000 children were at risk of death from starvation even with humanitarian intervention, and 16.2 million people faced acute food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme. Based on figures reported by the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system, which classifies the severity and magnitude of food insecurity and malnutrition, those most affected are in Hajjah, Al-Hudaydah, Saada and Taiz governorates, where different warring parties have control.

The report shows that starvation-induced deaths and widespread hunger are not incidental by-products of the conflict but the deliberate result of man-made conduct.

Acts of starvation

Mwatana, a Yemeni grassroots organisation and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has documented first-hand accounts of human rights violations and abuses committed during the conflict since 2015. Over the last year, the organisation has carried out an in-depth investigation into conduct by the Coalition and Ansar Allah targeting access to food and water. In the report, the evidence collected was then analysed by GRC, a foundation of international lawyers, in the context of the prohibition on the use of starvation as a method of warfare and right to food and water under international law.

Mwatana’s investigation found that Coalition airstrikes destroyed, damaged or otherwise rendered useless food and water infrastructure, hitting farms, livestock, irrigation works, water facilities, fishing boats and fishing equipment. After repeated airstrikes, fishermen in the waters off Al-Hudaydah were given the choice to flee and die from starvation, or risk being killed by an airstrike. The sea, once integral to the community, has become a place of fear.

The report shows that starvation-induced deaths and widespread hunger are not incidental by-products of the conflict but the deliberate result of man-made conduct

The airstrikes were not one-off incidents or targeting errors, but formed part of a pattern of conduct involving the destruction of objects essential to civilians’ survival, also including food markets, food and water transport vehicles, and storage facilities.

Ansar Allah prevented civilians from accessing lifesaving food aid, diverting it to loyalists. The restrictions they imposed were so severe that the World Food Programme was forced to suspend its operations in 2019, leaving 850,000 people facing significant food shortages for sustained and repeated periods.

The constant fear of unmarked landmines laid by Ansar Allah across Dhubab District in the Taiz governorate meant Yemenis stopped herding, farming or logging, and their access to water supplies were cut off.

At the same time, the warring parties imposed restrictive economic policies and heavy taxes and tariffs on essential goods, including fuel, and the Coalition enforced a de facto naval and aerial blockade that limited access to food and water, as well as life-saving medical assistance.

All this led to starvation.

War crimes

The report found that parties to the conflict violated the prohibition on the use of starvation under international humanitarian law.

Article 14 of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions prohibits the deliberate use of starvation as a method of warfare during non-international armed conflicts, including through attacking, destroying, damaging or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. A corresponding amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) makes the deliberate use of starvation as a method of warfare in non-international armed conflicts a war crime over which the court has jurisdiction, though only with respect to a state that has ratified it and only one year after it deposits its instrument of ratification or acceptance with the UN secretary general. Only six states have ratified the amendment, none of which are parties to the conflict in Yemen.

Article 30 of the Rome Statute allows a member of the Coalition or of Ansar Allah to be held liable if they carried out the conduct documented in the report, whether they actually intended to starve civilians, or were simply aware of the virtual certainty that starvation would occur in the ordinary course of events, that is, without humanitarian intervention. This means that knowledge that starvation would result is enough to say that the war crime of starvation occurred.

States should establish an international criminally focused investigative mechanism to collect evidence and support future prosecutions of those responsible for starvation

GRC’s legal analysis determined that the food insecurity context, as well as the manner, timing and repetition of attacks on food and water infrastructure –together with restrictions on humanitarian access, the targeting of other indispensable objects, and other crimes committed during the conflict – support a finding that members of the Coalition and Ansar Allah had the requisite knowledge or, alternatively, intent to starve.

Actions needed

Humanitarian organisations and UN bodies have repeatedly decried the toll that conflict-related food and water insecurity was having on civilians, calling on the warring parties to protect them, with little success. Parties to the conflict were aware that their actions would lead to mass starvation, yet they continued unabated.

Despite mounting evidence, not enough has been done to prevent further international crimes or to ensure accountability.

Rampant impunity enjoyed by the warring parties, as well as states that support them by providing arms and other support, has meant its key players continue to restrict civilians’ access to food and water, and commit other violations and abuses of international human rights law, with little fear of consequence. The ICC only has jurisdiction over a small number of Coalition members, namely Jordan, Senegal and the Maldives. It doesn’t have jurisdiction over the main players in the conflict: Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Other situations in which civilians have faced extreme threats to their life have garnered the support of states for stronger accountability measures. Yemenis deserve such support too. At the next session of the UN Human Rights Council starting on 13 September, with an agenda that includes Yemen, states should establish an international criminally focused investigative mechanism to collect evidence and support future prosecutions of those responsible for starvation.

The UN Group of Eminent Experts’ mandate must be renewed, so that information can be preserved for broader accountability and to redress needs.

States must also cease the sale of arms to those perpetuating human rights abuses, ratify the Rome Statute amendment making the use of starvation a war crime in non-international armed conflicts, and support all investigations and prosecutions, including through the use of universal jurisdiction.

‘Starvation Makers’ sheds light on the chilling events which have exacerbated and perpetuated extensive hunger. As the report highlights, Yemenis are being starved, and not enough is being done to stop it.

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