Russian blockade could cause mass starvation beyond Ukraine – but it’s a nameless crime

It is difficult to assess the worst aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For some, it will be the illegal invasion itself. For others, war crimes or crimes against humanity committed since.

But measured in terms of sheer human suffering, the worst atrocity may well turn out to be starvation beyond the immediate war zone. With Russian blockades of Ukrainian ports preventing the export of grain, there are now mass starvation warnings In other countries.

But while invasions and war crimes are recognized violations of international law, causing starvation as collateral damage in countries not directly related to war is not a recognized crime. There is not even a name for this type of atrocity, which could kill millions of people.

Ukraine is one of the most large bread baskets and a major cog in the global food economy. There have been direct attacks on Ukrainian grain storage facilities, but Russia knows the most effective economic damage lies in targeting export routes on earth and the sea. More than 70% of Ukrainian exports, including 99% of its maize, go by boat.

Russia has suspended entrance in the strategic Sea of ​​Azov on the southeast coast of Ukraine and effectively blockaded the northern part of the Black Sea, where NATO says the risk of collateral damage or the direct attack against merchant ships is high.

Dozens of other ships are stuck in Ukrainian portsand skyrocketing shipping prices and rising insurance rates are pushing merchant ships to safer places.

Collateral damage beyond the war zone

Using hunger as a weapon of war is nothing new. And while there were attempts in the 19th century to limit blockades to arms and contraband directly related to war efforts, these chivalrous ideas dissolved in the horrors of World Wars I and II.

The Geneva Conventions that followed prohibited the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. Ocean blockages aimed at depriving civilian populations of elements essential to their survival are also illegal. In 2018, the United Nations Security Council (including Russia) reconfirmed the prohibition of the use of hunger as a weapon of war.

Although Russia has now tried to to move back of these humanitarian legal commitments, these rules are considered as customary, which means that they apply generally, whether specific countries agree or not. There are also strong legal arguments and general principles on freedom of transit which apply to maritime commerce for peaceful purposes.

But all of these laws and rules are meant to protect civilians in war zones. They were designed to contain the immediate damage of war. They were not designed to prevent collateral damage to remote non-conflict populations.

Thus, if the starvation of an enemy is not new, the starvation of vulnerable but remote civilian populations is. This is partly a symptom of our globalized world, where interconnectedness, vulnerability and outdated or inadequate rules and constraints collide. And that means the greatest war-related loss of life in Ukraine could occur elsewhere.

War in a starving world

The threat is exacerbated by the wider problem of starvation and malnutrition in a world where 811 million people go to bed hungry every night. The number of people facing acute food insecurity has more than doubled since 2019, from 135 million to 276 million.

Up to 44 million people in 38 countries are on the edge of starvation. Most are just one more economic shock following a disaster – like a potential 37% increase in food prices now planned by the World Bank.

There can be many causes of food crisesbut a combination of weather shocks, rising prices and conflict now sees 60% of the world’s hungry live in regions afflicted by war, violence, debt and poverty.

It is not possible to say whether Russia’s threat to global food security is deliberate or coincident with its war aims, but there are ways to avert catastrophe.

Ideally, the Sea of ​​Azov and the Black Sea would be demilitarized. A workable compromise would be for all parties to the war to agree on a secure hallway for merchant ships and the food trade, guaranteed by neutral third parties.

Given the seemingly intractable situation between Russia, Ukraine and the West, this may be hopeless. But urgent efforts must be made. The lives of millions of people on the brink of starvation and living beyond the war zone may depend on it.