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The Right to Food

27-04-2001 Statement

57th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – Agenda item 10 - 27 April 2001, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr. Chairperson,

Thank you for giving me the floor.

It is almost a platitude to note that armed conflict is a major cause of denial of food or of access to food given the obvious link between war and the malnutrition, disease and death usually left in its wake. Curiously, however, the ongoing international debate on the right to food has unfolded largely without reference to either armed conflict as a key reason for lack of food or to international humanitarian law as a body of rules intended to ensure food in armed conflict situations. If our common goal is to comprehensively prevent and alleviate human suffering when such suffering is caused by lack of food, then international humanitarian law must be seen as an essential component of the applicable legal framework. We would like to take this opportunity to highlight a couple of relevant rules:

  • International humanitarian law expressly prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of combat in both international and non-international armed conflict. This prohibition is violated not only when lack of food or denial of access to it causes death, but also when the population suffers hunger because of deprivation of food sources or supplies.

  • It should be noted that intentional starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime when committed in international armed conflict under the 1998 Rome Statute establishing a permanent International Criminal Court. Intentional starvation of civilians is a serious violation of international humanitarian law when committed in internal armed conflict as well.

  • In elaboration of the prohibition of starv ation, international humanitarian law specifically prohibits attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Such objects include foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations, drinking water supplies and irrigation works.

  • It is fairly obvious that population displacement is a major cause of hunger and starvation in war. International humanitarian law prohibits the forced displacement of civilians unless their security or imperative military reasons so demand in both international and non-international armed conflict. Forced movement of civilians is a war crime in both types of conflict under the Rome Statute.

  • Last, but by no means least, international humanitarian law contains specific rules on assistance to civilian populations in armed conflict situations. Parties to an armed conflict must allow humanitarian and impartial relief operations - including those aimed at providing food - when supplies essential for the civilian population are lacking.

The rules outlined above represent just a fraction of the many provisions of international humanitarian law directly aimed at ensuring food or access to it in armed conflict situations. Apart from the number and detail of the rules involved, the strength of humanitarian law lies also in the fact that its prescriptions must be applied immediately, rather than progressively, that it unequivocally binds both state and non-state actors and that it permits no derogations whatsoever.