Russia employs starvation as method of warfare: global rights group report

Russia employed starvation as a method of warfare during their 85-day siege of Mariupol in 2022, said a report published on Thursday by Global Rights Compliance (GRC).

The report, titled ‘The Hope Left Us: Russia’s Siege, Starvation, and Capture of Mariupol City,” was published by the GRC Starvation Mobile Justice Team, as part of a UK, EU, and US-sponsored advisory group on Atrocity Crimes. GRC’s research involved intelligence specialists, open-source intelligence, and geo-location experts analyzing satellite imagery, photographs, film, official public statements, and other digital data.

The extensive research addressed Russia’s invasion and siege of Mariupol in February 2022, during which Russian forces aimed to capture the city due to its geopolitical importance and strategic access to the sea. Over an 85-day offensive, the report says the forced systematically attacked “objects indispensable to survival” (OIS) of civilians, including energy, water, food distribution points, and healthcare facilities. These attacks severely restricted access to fundamental civilian infrastructure and humanitarian aid. The GRC’s report indicates that this conduct reflects a pattern and deliberate strategy by pro-Russian forces to employ starvation as a method of warfare. The systematic crimes were intended to accelerate the capture of Mariupol, which was ultimately declared in May 2022.

Moreover, the report highlighted the attacks on critical infrastructure, the arbitrary denial of humanitarian aid to civilians under Ukrainian control, attacks on humanitarian evacuation corridors, and the implementation of a filtration system to screen civilians for Russian loyalty. It also detailed the arrest and prosecution of civilian humanitarian volunteers on terrorism-related charges under the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ Criminal Code.

The violations in question constitute fundamental breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL), which is applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts. A core principle of IHL is the principle of distinction, which mandates a clear separation between civilians and civilian objects, and combatants, civilians participating in hostilities, and military objectives. According to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, only individuals actively participating in hostilities are considered legitimate targets, rendering any attack on civilians and civilian objects strictly prohibited.

Starvation as a method of warfare is expressly prohibited under Article 54(1) of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, to which both Ukraine and Russia are parties. The second paragraph of this provision forbids attacking and destroying objects indispensable for survival, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas, drinking water installations, supplies, and livestock. These objects may only be targeted if they are used solely to sustain armed forces, thus ensuring the protection of civilians under IHL and customary international law.

The report forms part of a wider investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into the situation in Ukraine, initiated through referrals by state parties under Article 13(a) in accordance with Article 14 of the Rome Statute. This provision allows the ICC to proceed with its investigation even though Ukraine and Russia are not parties to the Rome Statute. Since the Prosecutor announced the investigation, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber II has issued four arrest warrants, including a notable one for Russian president Vladimir Putin.