Criminalizing Starvation in an Age of Mass Deprivation in War: Intent, Method, Form, and Consequence

77 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2021 Last revised: 22 Apr 2022

See all articles by Tom Dannenbaum

Tom Dannenbaum

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Date Written: November 1, 2021


We live in an era of mass starvation in war. Across a range of conflicts, belligerents have attacked humanitarian workers; destroyed, looted, or rendered unusable food and food sources; and engaged in comprehensive siege warfare, sequestering populations from key sources of essential goods. Millions have been left in famine or on the brink thereof. This has elicited growing calls for accountability. However, traditional criminal categories are not promising. The situation and nature of objects indispensable to survival is such that they typically provide sustenance to both civilians and combatants; the conduct that deprives people of those objects often involves acting on the objects, rather than acting directly on the affected persons, and the causal chain from deprivation to civilian suffering is long and complex. Appropriately, attention has turned instead towards the recently codified and largely untested war crime of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. Whether and how this framework can underpin a legal response to mass deprivation hinges on how key debates as to the crime’s meaning are resolved. Entering those debates, this Article debunks the common view that the starvation crime attaches only to conduct that seeks to weaponize civilian suffering. Instead, it presents an alternative theory according to which the crime should be understood transitively as focused primarily on the act of deprivation, rather than the outcome it produces. This approach would reshape how we think about the crime, with particularly acute implications for the regulation of sieges and blockades.

Suggested Citation

Dannenbaum, Tom, Criminalizing Starvation in an Age of Mass Deprivation in War: Intent, Method, Form, and Consequence (November 1, 2021). Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, vol. 54 (forthcoming 2022), Available at SSRN:

Tom Dannenbaum (Contact Author)

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy ( email )

Medford, MA 02155
United States

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