International Law Studies


Among the most pernicious trends in contemporary armed conflict is the return of mass starvation in war, in some cases as its primary source of human suffering. This has prompted a renewed focus on the relevant rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). On some issues, there is relative consensus. On the issue of deprivation by encirclement, however, there is confusion.

Some have questioned whether the prohibition on the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare applies to encirclements at all, particularly in the naval context. Others have interpreted the prohibition vanishingly narrowly. In contrast to the more extreme of these positions, the San Remo Manual applies the starvation ban to naval blockades. However, its reframing of the ban introduces gaps and ambiguities that deviate from existing IHL. With the Manual’s revision process underway, there is an opportunity to remedy these infirmities.

This article charts the historical trajectory of starvation in IHL, exposes the vulnerabilities in the Manual’s articulation of the law of blockade, debunks arguments for the permissibility of encirclement starvation, and makes the case for recognizing a categorical prohibition on the starvation of civilians in armed conflict. It maps the path forward for the Manual’s revision, proposing changes to the blockade provisions and emphasizing the importance of extending the Manual’s starvation rules to other modes of naval warfare. It also spotlights the need for the revision to cover the law of non-international armed conflict at sea and the role of international human rights law in naval warfare.