Siege Starvation: A War Crime of Societal Torture | Tom Dannenbaum

Siege Starvation: A War Crime of Societal Torture | Tom Dannenbaum

Wednesday, February 21, 2024
12:30 PM - 2:00 PM

William J. Perry Conference Room

  • Tom Dannenbaum

This event is open only to Stanford faculty, staff, fellows, and students.


Tom Dannenbaum is Associate Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, where he is Co-Director of the Center for International Law & Governance. Prior to joining the Fletcher School, he taught at University College London and Yale Law School. Dannenbaum writes on the law of armed conflict, the law governing the use of force, international criminal law, human rights, shared responsibility, and international judging. His articles have appeared in a range of leading journals and have received multiple awards, including the American Society of International Law’s (ASIL) International Legal Theory Scholarship Prize in 2022 for his work on siege starvation and ASIL’s Lieber Prize in 2017 for his work on the crime of aggression. His writing on peacekeeping has been cited by the Hague Court of Appeal and the International Law Commission. His book, The Crime of Aggression, Humanity, and the Soldier, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. Dannenbaum has testified or presented before U.S. congressional and U.N. bodies and has appeared or been quoted in leading media outlets, including the New York Times, the Economist, National Public Radio, PBS Frontline, the BBC World Service, MSNBC, Deutsche Welle, and Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others. He has received teaching awards at both the Fletcher School and UCL, as well as the faculty research award at Fletcher. He holds a PhD from Princeton, a JD from Yale, and a BA from Stanford.


A recent amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has drawn unprecedented attention to the war crime of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. It comes at a time when mass starvation in war is resurgent, devastating populations in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Palestine, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere. The practice has also drawn the scrutiny of the United Nations Security Council. And yet, what precisely is criminally wrongful about starvation methods remains underspecified.

A common way of thinking about the criminal wrong is as a form of killing or harming civilians. Although its differentiating particularities matter, the basic wrongfulness of the crime inheres, on this view, in it being an attack on those who ought not be attacked. For some, this supports a broad interpretation of the starvation ban. However, for others, the graduality of starvation preserves the continuous possibility of the avoidance or minimization of civilian death or harm in a way that direct kinetic attacks do not. In combination with the method’s purported military utility, this distinctive incrementalism has underpinned arguments for the permissibility of certain forms of siege and other deprivation and a narrow interpretation of the starvation crime.

Drawing on the moral philosophy of torture, this Article offers a different normative theory of the crime. Starvation, like torture, is peculiarly wrongful in its distortion of victims’ biological imperatives against their capacities to formulate and act on higher-order desires, political commitments, and even love. This process does not merely raise the cost of fulfilling those commitments. Instead, starvation tears gradually at the very capacity of those affected to prioritize their most fundamental commitments, regardless of whether they would choose to do so under the conditions necessary to evaluate matters with a “contemplative attitude.” Rather than palliating, the slowness of starvation methods is at the crux of this torturous wrong. Recognizing this redefines the meaning and place of the crime in the framework of international criminal law.

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