Swiss proposal broadens ICC war crimes definition

The International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, can try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Keystone

Thanks to a Swiss initiative, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will now be able to prosecute as a war crime the intentional starvation of civilians in civil wars.

The ICC’s 122 member states unanimously approved a Swiss proposal to this effect at their annual meeting this week in The Hague. This will strengthen protection of victims of war, according to the Swiss foreign ministry.

The majority of the over 800 million people who suffer from hunger every day live in conflict zones,” the ministry statement continues.

The International Criminal Court has a mandate to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Up until now, it could only prosecute intentional starvation of civilians as a war crime in an international armed conflict, but this has now been broadened to include non-international armed conflicts.

“The intentional starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is a major problem in civil wars,” says the Swiss foreign ministry.  

Examples that could be cited include Syria and Yemen. Neither of these countries are ICC member states, and the amendment is unlikely to have much impact in the immediate future.

However, as pointed out on the international law website Opinio Juris, “the amendment’s real utility would come in the context of Security Council referrals”. If the UN Security Council were to refer either Syria or Yemen to the ICC at some point in the future, for example (although this currently looks unlikely), it would make it possible for the OTP to prosecute starvation of civilians in those states.

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