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War crimes dossier to accuse Russia of deliberately causing starvation in Ukraine

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Human rights lawyers working with Ukraine’s public prosecutor are preparing a war crimes dossier to submit to the international criminal court (ICC) accusing Russia of deliberately causing starvation during the 18-month-long conflict.

The aim is to document instances where the Russian invaders used hunger as a weapon of war, providing evidence for the ICC to launch the first prosecution of its kind that could indict the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Yousuf Khan, a senior lawyer with law firm Global Rights Compliance, said “the weaponisation of food has taken place in three phases,” starting with the initial invasion where Ukrainian cities were besieged and food supplies cut.

Among the incidents documented was when 20 civilians were killed in Chernihiv in the early morning of 16 March 2022, when Russian fragmentation bombs exploded outside a supermarket in the city where Ukrainians were queueing for bread and food.

Investigators are also focusing on the siege of Mariupol, Khan added. Food supplies were cut to the city and humanitarian relief corridors blocked or bombed, making it very difficult or impossible for desperate, starving civilians to escape.

The second phase includes the destruction of food and water supplies as well as energy sources across Ukraine during the fighting, which the lawyer described as “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population”.

Such attacks, Khan argued, were “not crimes of result but crimes of intent” because “if you are taking out objects that civilians need, like energy infrastructure in the dead of winter, there is a foreseeability to your actions”.

Cities such as Mykolaiv in the south were left without drinking water from early in the conflict after Russian forces captured the pumping station that supplied it. The remaining residents were forced to rely on water being driven in daily to ensure they could drink and wash safely.

The third element is Russian attempts to prevent or restrict exports of Ukrainian food. “Then we’ve seen Russia attack grain facilities on the Danube and engage in muscle flexing on the Black Sea,” Khan said, citing reports from Ukrainian officials that 270,000 tonnes of the foodstuff were destroyed in late July and early August.

Fresh accusations that Russia sought to starve Ukrainians are particularly emotive in the light of the two countries’ history: in 1932-33, millions died of hunger in the Holodomor, an enforced famine engineered by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet government.

But they have been given a renewed emphasis after the passage of a UN security council resolution in 2018 which condemned the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and revisions to the ICC’s governing Rome statute in 2019, to expand the type of cases that can be brought.

GRC is working with Ukrainian prosecutors until the end of next year to compile the dossier. The intention is to make a filing under article 15 of the Rome statute, allowing third parties to send information on alleged war crimes to the ICC’s prosecutor. It would be up to the prosecutor, based in The Hague, to decide whether to proceed.

Part of the lawyers’ effort will be to identify perpetrators, including whether to call for the indictment of Putin as happened in March when the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the president for overseeing the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children to Russia from territories occupied during the war.

Similar could be argued for starvation crimes, Khan said. “Putin could bear responsibility for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others,” he argued, and for a failure to exercise proper control over Russian military or others accused of specific criminal acts.

The lawyers work with open source intelligence specialists to detail examples of war crimes and engage in damage mapping analysis; collate relevant data, such as a count of aid convoys being rejected; and study statements made by Putin and other leaders, down to a local level, as they seek to build up their dossier.

Denying civilians access to food has taken place repeatedly in conflict. Recent examples include Syria, where the Bashar Assad government was accused of pursuing a “kneel or starve” strategy to force opposition areas into submission during the country’s civil war – and in Tigray, Ethiopia where 2 million people were estimated to be suffering from a shortage of food from 2020, stemming from a government blockade of the rebel province.