Food A Weapon In New Age of Starvation

Via Devex, a look at how the wars in Gaza and Ukraine are normalizing the weaponization of food:

For several months, the Biden Administration has stored some 60,000 metric tons of wheat in holding warehouses in the Fujairah port in the United Arab Emirates. The food — originally destined for millions of hungry Yemeni civilians in territory controlled by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — is a bargaining chip in a high-stakes United Nations negotiation over who gets to decide how aid is distributed.

The United States’ action is aimed at giving the World Food Programme leverage as it seeks to persuade the Houthis to relinquish some control over how aid is delivered on its territory and permits the U.N. to refine its list of beneficiaries to ensure that food goes to those with the greatest need. Those negotiations have dragged on for more than a year.

Frustrated with the pace of talks, the Rome-based food agency in December suspended a general food program that once targeted more than 9 million people in northern Yemen — though it continues its nutrition and school feeding programs. Still, the cut in wheat, oil, and other staples has exacted a high cost for millions of Yemeni civilians, who have been caught in the middle of a geopolitical food fight, forced to endure months of survival with less and less sustenance.

“The impact of the suspension is already affecting over nine million people, the majority of whom are in the northern area under Houthi control,” said Abdulwasea Mohammed, a Yemen-based representative for Oxfam, noting it has had a rippling effect across the local family economy, meaning money previously used to pay other household expenses and debts goes to food.

“It’s a daily struggle. I have been in different places in the north where people are now reducing how much they eat on a daily basis, giving priority to kids, and the most vulnerable, while they go to sleep on an empty stomach,” he told Devex by telephone.

Governments and armed groups have long used the promise of desperately needed food to achieve military, political, or even benign humanitarian goals.

From Afghanistan and Gaza to Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine, hunger and starvation have become a standard weapon in combatants’ war arsenal, aimed at denying the enemy access to basic humanitarian supplies and undermining popular morale. It has become increasingly visible, with attacks on food carried out by major powers, such as Russia, and America’s chief Middle East ally, Israel, as part of a broader deterioration of humanitarian standards.

Some observers see a broader erosion of international laws and norms promoting the prohibition of food as a weapon of war or as a lever in diplomatic or humanitarian negotiations, according to experts.

“The Golden Age of humanitarianism was from 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, until a few years ago,” Andrew Natsios, the former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, an advocate of decoupling food assistance from diplomacy, told Devex by telephone. “The norm is eroding and I think great power politics is playing a role in that, and it’s going to be increasingly difficult for us to enforce these rules.”

But others say that legal constraints on the use of starvation have always been too elastic to guarantee the protection of civilians.

“In the laws of war, you’re allowed to starve your adversary, but you’re not allowed to starve civilians in an international conflict,” said Michael Fakhri, an Oregon University law professor who serves as the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food. “That is never the case. If you’re going to starve your adversary, you’re inevitably going to starve civilians.”

“I’ve heard some diplomats say off the record ‘Look, we all use food as a weapon,’” he added.

‘Fig leaf for realpolitik’

Nearly a decade ago, the world was appalled by reports of Syrian government sieges of rebel-controlled villages, forcing starving and malnourished villagers to eat grass to survive.  

Now, it’s commonplace to read about it.

“There is an extent to which some of the practices we saw in Syria by the Syrians and the Russians have normalized behaviors that would have been more anathema before,” Jeremy Konyndyk, the president of Refugees International, told Devex in a phone interview. “You see this in a lot of the Israeli campaign in Gaza. Gaza City looks like Aleppo or Grozny.”

The similarities between the Russian and Israeli war strategies and Washington’s varied reaction “has undermined US credibility and moral leadership across the board,” Konyndyk added in a text message.

“The failure to uphold humanitarian norms in Gaza after loudly trumpeting them in Ukraine is very damaging,” he wrote. “In the eyes of the world it goes a long way toward validating Putin’s argument that it’s all a BS fig leaf for realpolitik.”

 “If you’re going to starve your adversary, you’re inevitably going to starve civilians.”

— Michael Fakhri, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food

The U.S. has sharply criticized Russia’s conduct in its war against Ukraine, citing its blockade on grain shipments from the port in Odesa, and its targeting of port facilities, crops, and grain storage facilities.    

“Putin tried to starve the world, blocking the ports in the Black Sea to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain — exacerbating the global food crisis that hit developing nations in Africa especially hard,” U.S. President Joe Biden said to the crowd gathered in Warsaw in February 2023.

“It is not just an attack on Ukraine’s economic security, it is a cynical assault on food security everywhere,” Biden said in a November statement. “Putin is hurting the world’s most vulnerable communities, for Russia’s profit.”

The Biden administration has placed a high priority on promoting food security, contributing $17.1 billion since 2021, according to a State Department spokesperson. 

The U.S. is also the largest contributor to WFP.  In Somalia, U.S. funds help stave off a famine in 2023. Last summer, the U.S. rallied 91 countries in signing a joint communique vowing to “take action to end the use of food as a weapon of war and the starvation of civilians as a tactic of warfare.” President Biden has ordered food airdrops and is expected to announce plans in his State of the Union to establish a maritime aid corridor to Gaza, including the construction of a temporary port off the coast of Gaza to speed the delivery of food, medicines, and other basics. “To the leadership of Israel, I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” he said.

“Hunger must not be weaponized,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council in August 2023.

Hunger is everywhere

But Israel’s war in Gaza has proven awkward for the White House, providing ammunition to American critics who contend Washington’s commitment to the cause depends on who is doing the starving.

Israel, which signed the no starvation communique, declared a total siege on Gaza in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 slaughter of more than 1,200 people, mostly Israeli civilians, cutting off food, medicine, and fuel. During the past five months, Israel has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israel has since partially eased the blockade, allowing some supplies across the border. But the steps have done little to prevent a rapid slide into starvation in Gaza, where the entire population of 2.2 million is struggling to eat, and some 576,000 are a “step away from starvation,” according to the U.N.

The U.N. has faulted Israel for refusing to open all entry points into Gaza from Israel, imposing stifling bureaucratic constraints on the delivery of aid, and failing to coordinate adequately with aid workers to ensure they are not harmed in military strikes. In the north, “access denials by Israeli authorities for aid deliveries have increased since early January 2024,” according to a paper provided to the U.N. Security Council by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“It is unequivocally impossible to mount effective humanitarian ops in Gaza under the IDF’s [Israel Defense Forces] approach to war,” Konyndyk told Devex by text. There is “no way to deal with the famine without a total change. This is why aid groups have been calling for a cease fire,” he added.

“Hunger is everywhere. A man-made famine is looming,” Philippe Lazzarini, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ commissioner-general, told the U.N. General Assembly on Monday. “More than 100 people were killed a few days ago while desperately seeking food. Babies —just a few months old — are dying of malnutrition and dehydration. “

“Today, food aid is required by almost the entire population of 2.2 million people,” Carl Skau, the deputy executive director of WFP, told the U.N. Security Council. “Gaza has seen the worst level of child malnutrition anywhere in the world. One child in every six under the age of two is acutely malnourished.”

The U.S. has privately and publicly urged Israel to permit far greater access to humanitarian aid deliveries and to ensure food and other basics can be distributed safely. At the same time, the U.S. has been pressing Congress to free up more than $14 billion in additional military aid to pursue its war against Hamas, making it essentially a party to the conflict. U.S. food airdrops have been criticized by aid organizations as an inadequate bandaid that simply masks the Biden administration’s failure to persuade Israel to end its obstruction of food aid.    

Israel maintains it has responded robustly to the humanitarian needs of Gazans. Israel “facilitates more humanitarian aid than the international organizations can distribute,” according to Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT. “If there are organizations that would like to bring in more food, we are happy to facilitate it.”

Since the beginning of the war, Israel has facilitated the passage of 15,000 trucks into Gaza, carrying 270,00 tons of aid, including water, medical supplies, shelter, and food, according to figures provided by COGAT.

Israel has also enabled the delivery of aid into northern Gaza, which has largely been cut off from humanitarian aid, saying it has coordinated more than 20 airdrops in collaboration with Egypt, France, Jordan, the UAE, and the U.S., according to rear admiral Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces.

Hagari said Israel has conducted a review of an incident in which more than 100 Palestinians were killed while seeking food from a convoy in northern Gaza. The Gaza Health Ministry claimed Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinians seeking lifesaving food, perpetrating a “massacre.” Palestinian medical workers said the majority of casualties suffered gunshot wounds.

Hagari denied the allegation, contending the majority of Palestinians died in a stampede as civilians struggled to reach food. He said that Israeli forces opened fire on a few looters who approached and threatened Israeli forces.  

In Yemen, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement has exploited food aid from the U.S., the U.N., and other donors to win loyalty, recruit fighters, and advance its military cause, according to experts. But WFP maintains that its own troubles are the result of shrinking donations, which has forced it to sharply reduce the number of food recipients in northern Yemen, from over 9 million to 6 million.  

As part of that process, WFP has sought the Houthis approval to carry out a so-called retargeting survey to determine who is most deserving of aid. The Houthis have resisted, citing concern that cutting off aid to millions of recipients could provoke violence, and seeking greater control over how aid is delivered.

A WFP spokesperson told Devex in a statement that the agency “continues to engage in good faith” with Yemen’s Sanaa-based Houthi authorities in an effort to restart the food program, but noted that any decision to resume the program is “contingent on receiving sufficient donor funding and support. Progress towards a negotiated agreement is promising in order to provide material benefit to the most vulnerable, and in line with available resources.”

The food agency has acknowledged that the pause in aid deliveries has exacted a serious toll on aid recipients in Yemen, noting that the prevalence of families facing “severe deprivation in food consumption” rose by 31% in December 2023. It has also disrupted WFP’s supply chain, requiring at least four months to restore the aid program.

“While the full impact of the pause had not yet materialized, there are indications of an increase in levels of severe deprivation amongst beneficiary households in the north,” according to a WFP update.

The U.N. standoff with the Houthis coincides with a sharp decline in international financial support for WFP in general, plus a rise in the costs of food and the subsequent decline in imports by as much as 17% in recent months. The Houthis attacks on Red Sea shipping vessels have also driven up the costs of insuring imports.

“Food prices are expected to rise during the coming months due to the gap triggered by the pause in food assistance, as well as the potential shortage in food supply associated with the decrease in commercial imports of food,” according to the update.

Elites don’t die in famines

Sieges and blockades aimed at sapping an enemy’s resources while starving civilians have a long history in military conflicts — and nations have scarcely sought to hide it.

During World War II, the U.S. launched Operation Starvation, an air and naval blockade against Japan. Even today, the proliferation of targeted U.S., U.N., and other Western sanctions — despite the implementation of humanitarian carve-outs designed to spare ordinary people — have added to the hardships in countries from Cuba to Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.  

“Sectoral sanctions can push the prices of basic food items out of reach of people with low incomes, and jeopardize the quality of available food items,” Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, warned in a statement in December.

Still, the notion that civilians need to be protected from the worst consequences of warfare — including starvation — has taken on increasing legal force in recent decades.

In 1977, the U.S. and others adopted the additional protocol to the Geneva Convention, which included a provision — article 14, that says “starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited.”

The provision denied states the right to “attack, destroy, remove or render useless, for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”

The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, has adopted resolutions reinforcing the requirement, including a humanitarian carve-out from U.N. asset freezes. But there is little the council can do to stop sieges by Russia and Israel of Ukraine and Gaza, where Russia and the U.S. wield veto power. Resolution 2417 requires the U.N. secretary-general to report to the 15-nation council when “the risk of conduct-induced famine and widespread food insecurity” occurs.

The 2018 resolution marks the “high water point” in the international community’s effort to prohibit the use of starvation for diplomatic or military aims, according to Alex de Waal, author of the book “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine.”

“The norms around starvation are relatively recent and not as robust as other norms,” de Waal told Devex, recalling that the U.S. “candidly” called its World War II blockade of Japan Operation Starvation. The end of the Cold War ushered in a period in which the U.S. and other key powers demonstrated “greater humanitarian sensibilities.”

 “The norm is evaporating fast,” he said.

De Waal suggested the proliferation of food crises has made it increasingly difficult to respond adequately, noting that several countries in the Horn of Africa are facing the prospect of mass hunger. In the past, he noted, “If there was a major food crisis in Ethiopia there would be a bit of a buffer in neighboring countries. In 2016, when a major food crisis struck in Somalia and South Sudan, Ethiopia was robust enough to be part of the solution. We really don’t have that now. They are all going down together.”

Andrew Natsios, a former president of World Vision who served as administrator of USAID during the George W. Bush administration, opposed the use of food aid as a carrot in U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea, De Waal recalled.

“Feed North Korea: Don’t play politics with hunger,” Natsios titled a 1997 opinion piece in The Washington Post, as Pyongyang was enduring famine.

“I have yet to see a member of the political elite or the military die in a famine anywhere,” he wrote. “The sequence of death follows a pattern: first the children under five, then pregnant women and nursing mothers, the sick, the elderly, and sometimes healthy adults.”

In an interview with Devex, Natsios said he had no compunction withholding aid to a distressed country if there was overwhelming evidence that it was being diverted to government elites or armed forces. But he reasoned that it was unethical, and contrary to U.S. interests, to use it as a lever in diplomatic negotiations, or to starve civilians in enemy territory.

He recalled cutting off food assistance to Sudan in the late 1980s after the Sudanese military, anticipating the onset of famine, “started confiscating food in our warehouses.”

“We’re not going to deliver any food if the military is going to steal it,” he said. “But you don’t use food as a weapon in the middle of negotiations, no matter who you’re dealing with.”

Armed men eat first

Some observers say we are kidding ourselves.

“The humanitarian principles are a useful fiction, a very useful fiction but a fiction nonetheless. The bedrock principle of distinction has long been inoperable,” one veteran of humanitarian operations told Devex by text. “And armed men eat first.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that autocratic governments around the world were “reluctantly willing to tolerate humanitarianism because ultimately the west had to be reconciled. But Israel showed the limits of this humanitarian fiction.”

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Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at