Barrel Bombs and Food Blockades: Syria’s Weapons and Alleged War Crimes

The U.N. Secretary-General strongly condemned the weaponized control of food and water supplies used in the conflict.

Residents of Madaya, Syria, wait for an aid convoy after being trapped by the Syrian government without food and supplies for months. (Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

Jan 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

For Syrian civilians who remain in the country, the twin dangers of starvation and dehydration can be a more pressing threat than being killed by bombs or gunfire. Even as far back as 2013, civilians in Eastern Ghouta were “desperate enough to run through shelling and sniper fire” to obtain flour that had been stockpiled as reserves for the Syrian government, The Washington Post reported.

Nearly three years later, as the fifth anniversary of the civil war approaches, continued conflict has made the situation even worse. While more traditional weapons of war, including barbaric barrel bombs, continue to kill civilians, food and water are being weaponized too. Many besieged towns are deliberately kept from access to food, water, electricity, and even medical assistance. “All sides, including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians, are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the general assembly last week. He noted specifically, “The use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime.”

Though the International Criminal Court doesn’t formally charge anyone with a war crime until a tribunal investigation is completed, it’s a weighty declaration. Simply stating that a situation is horrendous enough to constitute a war crime is a serious matter, said André-Michel Essoungou, public information officer at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “They are not words we use lightly,” he said.

Other than the occasional food deliveries permitted when sieges lift for affected towns, most residents rely on black-market food at highly inflated prices. “When you control bread and fuel, you control the whole society,” one Syrian analyst told The Washington Post. From the beginning, the focus for many armed groups in Syria has been the food chain—not just land itself. Armed forces can sell the increasingly valuable food to residents or merchants in other nations to raise funds. CNN reported that a kilogram of rice could easily sell for more than $100 in some places, and milk may cost as much as $300 per liter. In the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor, food prices rose 978 percent in the last year, according to the World Food Programme.

Despite the devastating effects of using food as a weapon, the right to food wasn’t codified into international law until the end of World War II. “While international humanitarian law contains no mention of the ‘right to food’ as such, many of its provisions are aimed at ensuring that persons or groups not or no longer taking part in hostilities are not denied food or access to it,” wrote legal adviser Jelena Pejic in the International Review of the Red Cross. She added that the main purpose of these laws “is to enable civilians to remain at home,” a goal that is clearly not being met in Syria. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s most recent estimates show that more than 50 percent of the population has fled their homes. Of the 18.2 million people who remain, more than half are food insecure.

Even before the beginning of armed conflict, Syria was struggling with food insecurity caused by a paralyzing drought. For those Syrian farmers still producing wheat and other crops, it’s more expensive to sell the product domestically than abroad owing to the challenges of transportation, the FAO reported. Even if the current conflict subsides, it’s unlikely that Syria will reach a state of political stability without regaining food security. “Food insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting, and communal conflict,” the WFP noted in a report on conflict and food security. The absence of war itself, the authors add, does not automatically mean peace and stability.

Unfortunately, even definitive war crimes cannot easily be stopped or persecuted. “Nothing happens right now because the conflict is ongoing, and the bad actors are just too powerful to be caught,” said Essoungou, giving the example of war criminals from the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, some of whom were only recently punished.

But Ban’s statement could lead to some relief for Syrians, as it may cause those who have been targeting civilian food supplies to step down. Essoungou believes that even the worst international human rights violator doesn’t want to be branded a war criminal. “No single warlord or fighter out there likes to be seen or wants to be seen having fingers pointed at him,” Essoungou said.