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Professor Tom Dannenbaum on Mass Starvation as a Method of Warfare

Current research explores to what degree international law can restrict or prohibit mass starvation as a tactic of war.

Tom Dannenbaum is assistant professor of international law at The Fletcher School. He writes on international law, focusing primarily on the laws of war, the law on the use of force, international criminal law, shared responsibility, and international judging. 

What questions does this research address?

Among the most pernicious trends in contemporary armed conflict is the return of mass starvation as a tactic of war. One form of that tactic is to encircle and cut off an enemy population, depriving them of items indispensable to their survival, typically with a view to eliciting capitulation. There is today a live debate regarding the degree to which international law restricts or prohibits such actions. Can states engage in encirclement deprivation with a view to starving out the enemy forces ensconced within the encircled population? If so, under what conditions and with what limits? Are they required to allow humanitarian aid in? If so, pursuant to what arrangements? Is their freedom to use such tactics enhanced if they offer civilians a path out of the encircled area? If so, on what grounds? Are there distinctions in the way that naval blockades and land sieges are regulated in this respect? If so, why? In Encirclement, Deprivation, and Humanity, Tom Dannenbaum answers these questions. He charts the historical trajectory of international law’s posture with respect to starvation in war, debunks arguments for the permissibility of encirclement starvation in sieges or blockades, and makes the case for interpreting existing law to impose a categorical prohibition on the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.

What what are the primary findings?

The most influential expert restatement of international law applicable to armed conflict at sea is the San Remo Manual, first published a quarter of a century ago. The Manual restates what the expert drafters took to be the requirements of international law at the time, including on the practice of naval blockades. As it approaches the end of its third decade in circulation, the Manual is undergoing a revision process involving a series of consultations with states and other stakeholders. The most immediate objective of Dannenbaum’s article is to expose problems with the Manual’s approach to starvation in naval warfare and to advocate a new path forward in the revision. The stakes are high. The Manual has been highly influential in militaries across the world. Many of its provisions are replicated verbatim in states’ naval commander’s handbooks, law of war manuals, and similar documents. Remedying the existing provisions could have a significant operational impact. Beyond that immediate goal, the broader objective of the article is to clarify the legal regime on starvation in armed conflict with a view to informing both the conduct of encirclements and the work of expert bodies, courts, and other authorities reviewing such actions. This is of direct relevance to a number of current or recent actions in South Sudan, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, Myanmar, Eritrea, Gaza, and elsewhere.


Encirclement, Deprivation, and Humanity: Revising the San Remo Manual Provisions on Blockade A Landmark Report on Starvation as a Method of Warfare

World Peace Foundation, recording and transcript: Tom Dannenbaum on International Criminal Law and Starvation