International humanitarian law and policy on

Food security

Nowhere are the consequences of the global food crisis felt more than in countries already facing humanitarian crises and torn apart by decades of warfare or instability. International humanitarian law includes rules to prevent starvation and reduce food insecurity in situations of armed conflict.

ICRC staff delivers food kits in Colombia.

Conflict drives food insecurity

During armed conflict, civilians cannot survive for long without food and water. And yet, conflict drives food insecurity as a result of how warring parties wage their battles and the disruption and degradation of food systems.

Starving civilians as a method of warfare is absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL). In this regard, IHL sets out a non-exhaustive list of "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population" which benefit from heightened protection: foodstuffs, agricultural areas, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or otherwise render useless these objects except for in very exceptional circumstances.

The ICRC's call to action on food security

First, in conflict, parties to the fighting have the primary responsibility to ensure the basic needs of civilians in areas under their control are met. They must protect crops, livestock, water structures and health facilities indispensable to the survival of the population. This includes facilitating rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access.

Second, funding to address the food crisis must be increased immediately to save lives. However, longer-term action to manage risks and strengthen resilience is also critical to prepare for the next crisis. We must ensure assistance reaches those affected by conflict and support climate-smart agriculture and pastoralist practices.

Third, meeting the scale of needs in the short, medium and long term calls for leveraging the capacities of entities ranging from humanitarian and development agencies to financial institutions and local and regional authorities.

What the law says