The international press has rightfully focused attention in the past couple of months on the plight of the people of Madaya in Syria, who have been starved by the Syrian regime and its allies. This week, the United Nations is attempting to draw attention to the similar plight of the people of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. Starving out noncombatants is a war crime. Unfortunately, it is one being widely and routinely practiced, sometimes by allies of the United States. Washington has a responsibility to see that charges are brought at the International Criminal Court against civilian officials and military leaders who order such crimes. Where politics makes this step impossible, the United States must at the least mobilize what boycotts and sanctions it can. Where the policy is being carried out by US allies, Washington’s obligations are clear.
At least 400,000 Syrians are trapped in conditions of severe food insecurity, caught in the cross-fire of military maneuvers by the regime and its opposition. While Madaya and nearby Zabadani are being starved by the Assad regime and its allies in order to get at Al Qaeda (the Nusra Front) and other hard-line Salafi jihadis using them as a base, Foua and Kefraya in Idlib consist of Shiite populations being starved by the opposition, elements of which are supported by the CIA and by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States is at war with an indigenous tribal group, the Faith Supporters, or Houthis. The result is that the UN’s World Food Program estimates that the country’s third-largest city, Taiz, is only one level below famine, despite the small amounts of food aid it has been able to deliver in the past two weeks. (To be fair, some of that food was paid for by the Saudis.) Indeed, people in 10 of the country’s 22 provinces are in the same boat. Some 7.6 million Yemenis (a country of 24 million) are now food insecure, and some UN agencies suggest the number is double that. Some UN officials have seen a pattern of Saudi airstrikes on food convoys headed to Houthi-held areas, or on ports key to provisioning the civilian population. The Houthis have also been charged with using food denial as a tool of war. The threat of famine is driven not only by military disruptions of food delivery but also by price spikes in what food there is. (Many victims of famine starve to death not because there is no food but because they cannot afford to buy it.)
Cynics will maintain that wars inescapably involve war crimes. The history of military diplomacy, however, does not support that contention. Outside of superhero movies, no one boasts of killing innocent women and children. Even those who glorify their own ruthlessness depict their victims as dangerous or polluting to the body politic, not as innocent. Rather, movements and governments are eager to justify themselves to the outside world, and gaining its support is sometimes crucial to their success. Throwing light on war crimes, as defined by international treaties and instruments that are now enforceable against individual leaders under the Rome Statute, is crucial to combating this recrudescence of mass brutality in the contemporary world. The 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which explicitly declare that use of starvation as a method of war is a crime, were signed by Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom, so this norm is not alien but rather something widely agreed to by treaty in the region.