The starvation of civilians is an all too frequent feature of armed conflict. While starvation may occur as an unintended consequence of military activities, it is also sometimes intentionally used by conflicting parties as a method of warfare.

There is a broad consensus that the employment of starvation tactics during armed conflict is morally repugnant. This condemnation is reflected in many instruments of international law, which prohibit the use of starvation as a method of warfare in all armed conflicts. Despite this apparent consensus, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court only includes the starvation of civilians as a war crime when it is committed during international armed conflict.

In the face of this anomaly, Switzerland has proposed an amendment to the Rome Statute, whereby the crime of starving civilians would also apply to non-international armed conflicts. The following analysis addresses the key issues arising from the Swiss proposal, including the legal basis for the prohibition under customary and conventional international law, the elements of the proposed formulation, and the policy implications of adopting such an amendment to the Rome Statute.


Federica D'Alessandra, Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security at the Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict (ELAC), and the Co-Chair of the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee.

Matthew Gillett works as a Trial Lawyer at the International Criminal Court, and the International Bar Association’s War Crimes Committee Special Rapporteur on the War Crime of Starvation.