War crimes investigators say they aim to bring the first international prosecution for starvation following Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian food supplies and farming.
The targeting of Ukraine’s agriculture, its farmland and grains stocks, and even civilians searching for food, amounts to a weaponisation of starvation and a clear war crime, investigators argue.
Last week, Russia continued to strike Ukrainian grain export ports on the Danube river and in the Odesa region. The United Nations said Russia has been carrying out an average of one attack every other day since Moscow pulled out of the international Black Sea deal to transport Ukraine’s grain to the world’s markets.
Investigators said the Kremlin’s weaponisation of food had ranged from attacking food queues to blockading grain exports, destroying farming infrastructure and diverting captured Ukrainian supplies to Russia.
The Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the legal basis of the Hague-based body, defines a starvation war crime as: “Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including by willfully preventing relief supplies as provided for in the Geneva Conventions.”
Yousuf Syed Khan, a senior lawyer with an international human rights law firm, called Global Rights Compliance, has been working with Ukraine’s prosecutor general to document suspected crimes.
He said: “We believe very strongly that through conduct in the offensives that we have documented, starvation crimes are fairly clear and we hope to provide the ICC with a submission so that they may take it forward.”
The crime has so far never been brought to prosecution, but he said the idea had gained traction. The crime was in 2019 widened to include starvation in non-international armed conflicts, such as civil wars.
He said: “We are seeing a lot of momentum. I think Ukraine, with the political interest and the realpolitik, could really genuinely be the first case for starvation. Ukraine could really be a test case here.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid agency last week said Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports would increase global prices and increase food shortages in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Negotiations are still going on to revive the Black Sea deal, which allowed for commercial food and fertiliser exports from three Ukrainian ports, but sources familiar with the talks said Russia had refused to give ground until its own demands were met.
‘This is another Holodomor’
These include the unfreezing of foreign accounts of its domestic agricultural companies, the lifting of an embargo on agricultural machinery spare parts for use in Russia, and the reconnection of Rosselkhozbank, a Russian agricultural bank, back to the international SWIFT payment system.
Meanwhile, IRC said the destruction of grain silos, bombardment of Ukraine’s ports and civilian infrastructure, as well as widespread landmine contamination, “make it virtually impossible for the farmers to recover and prepare for the upcoming winter”.
For many Ukrainians, Russia’s weaponisation of food brings echoes of the man-made famine that convulsed the country in the early 1930s.
That famine, known as the Holodomor, or “murder by starvation”, followed the decision of the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, to collectivise agriculture. Millions starved as farmers and peasants were forced to give up their land and main source of food. Around four million Ukrainians are estimated to have died.
Andrii, a farmer from Kherson, said following the Russian invasion, everything from his farm had been stolen and his fields were full of unexploded land mines.
“Everything that is happening with agriculture in Ukraine is another Holodomor, not for Ukraine, but for the world, for Africa, and for all buyers of Ukrainian grain,” he said. “This crisis has the potential to lead to famine worldwide.”
The ICC has already issued an arrest warrant for Putin for the alleged war crime of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. Prosecutions for other war crimes are expected to follow, though Russia does not recognise the court.
Mr Syed Khan declined to say which Russian figures might have committed starvation crimes.
But he said the tactics were familiar from Russia’s brutal campaign to help Bashar al-Assad subdue Syria.
He said: “When you besiege an area, in order to accelerate its capture, you attack what are called objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. These can be electricity, heat, the water supply and food sources.
“You do that in order to accelerate the capture of an area, and force the capitulation of the party because you are basically making life uninhabitable for the civilian population.
“You see that repeatedly, you saw that in Chernihiv [outside Kyiv] where they were attacking bread queues, you see it in the way that the sieges are manifested, bombing humanitarian corridors, blocking access for international actors to provide aid.”
Weaponisation of food happened not only during Russia’s invasion, but during its occupation of Ukrainian territory, Mr Syed Khan added.
“Here you have an almost systematic way in which they are rebuilding rail infrastructure, rebuilding road infrastructure in order to ostensibly export millions of tonnes of Ukraine’s grain to the Russian side.”
He said Moscow was also holding Ukrainian grain hostage as a bargaining chip.
“You are attacking grain ports along the Danube, you are forcing Ukraine to pivot to the Sulina Channel with its exports, to work with Romania, in order to elicit sanctions relief on the world stage for Moscow.”
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