Intentional starvation of civilians should be considered a war crime worldwide: Federal Council supports International Criminal Court

Bern, 19.05.2021 - Intentionally starving civilians is often used as a tactic of war. In Switzerland, it is classified as a war crime. Based on a Swiss initiative, in December 2019 the states parties to the Rome Statute declared the intentional use of starvation of civilians to be a war crime before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in civil wars as well. Previously, it had only been classified as such in wars between states. At its meeting on 19 May 2021, the Federal Council adopted the dispatch for the Federal Assembly to approve the corresponding amendment to the Rome Statute of the ICC. Ratifying the new amendment would not require any changes to Swiss law. It would however improve protection for people in war zones, which is also one of the objectives of the Federal Council's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23.

Hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger all over the world. Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is commonplace in non-international armed conflicts (civil wars). It is prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL) and is considered a war crime under Swiss law. However, before the ICC such acts could so far only be prosecuted as war crimes in international armed conflicts, i.e. wars between states, in accordance with the Rome Statute.

New amendment is a success of Swiss foreign policy
Based on its national legislation and humanitarian tradition, in April 2018 Switzerland launched an initiative to close this loophole in the Rome Statute and enable the ICC to prosecute the starvation of civilians as a war crime in civil wars as well. Switzerland's diplomatic efforts in the ensuing negotiations won over an increasing number of states.  In December 2019, the Assembly of States Parties adopted the amendment to the Rome Statute unanimously. "Switzerland received a great deal of recognition for its initiative and the way it carried out the whole process," confirmed Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). 

Strengthen protection for people in war zones
Ratifying the amendment would not require any changes to Swiss law. However, in doing so Switzerland would in turn encourage other states parties to ratify the amendment and make the intentional starvation of civilians in civil wars a punishable offence. The practical relevance of the ICC in contemporary armed conflicts would be bolstered. The overriding objective is to improve protection for people in conflict zones and end impunity for war crimes. This is imperative for lasting reconciliation and peaceful co-existence as the Federal Council underscores in its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23.

The amendment also seeks to promote IHL by empowering the ICC to enforce the prohibition of intentional starvation in civil wars. It also reinforces the work of humanitarian aid seeking to improve food security and humanitarian access in conflict zones. For these reasons, at its meeting on 19 May 2021 the Federal Council referred to the Federal Assembly the dispatch to approve the amendment of 6 December 2019 to the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute is the founding treaty of the ICC.

ICC a historical achievement and integral part of of the international order
The ICC is the result of decades of efforts to prosecute the gravest of crimes, such as those committed during the Second World War, and thus prevent them from happening again. Its jurisdiction is clearly limited to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of aggression. The court may only initiate investigations against individuals and in cases where the law enforcement authorities of the country in question is unwilling or unable to do so. Switzerland has been consistently active in supporting an effective ICC which can carry out its work efficiently.

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