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A mother in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia holds the hands of her malnourished daughter, May 11.

The world’s response to Ethiopian famine

A war in the Tigray region, where fighters have targeted food production, has led the U.S. and Europe to invoke a new tool of international humanitarian law.

Seven months after a war broke out in Ethiopia, it remains unclear how many civilians have been killed in Africa’s second most populous nation. Estimates vary wildly. But something is known: Ethiopia’s military and its allies have burned stores of seeds, destroyed farm equipment, and killed oxen and even aid workers trying to deliver food.

In other words, they have used starvation as a tool of war, hoping it will end a rebellion in the northern region of Tigray. And indeed, on June 10 the United Nations declared a famine exists for an estimated 350,000 people in Tigray, the worst war-induced famine in a decade. A further 400,000 people could be in famine conditions by September, perhaps replicating the historic Ethiopian famine of 1983-85.

The tactic of conflict-induced hunger is not new in the history of warfare. Seven decades ago, the United States considered blocking food supplies to Cuba to put pressure on the communist regime. In Yemen, South Sudan, and other current conflicts, fighters often deny access to humanitarian aid. What is new for Ethiopia’s famine is that the global community has an additional tool to prevent the weaponization of food.

Three years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2417, which, for the first time in the council’s history, condemned starvation as a form of warfare and declared it a war crime. More importantly, it empowered the U.N. to impose sanctions on individuals and entities that obstruct humanitarian aid to hungry civilians in a war zone. The measure adds to the rules of the Geneva Conventions that require parties in a conflict not to hinder the ability of individuals to obtain adequate food.

The Security Council has yet to address Ethiopia’s food crisis, a result of Russia and China preventing such action. But on Thursday, the U.S. and European Union held a “high-level roundtable” to draw the world’s attention to the humanitarian emergency in Ethiopia. The U.S. announced an additional $181 million in aid for the war’s victims. And it already has set restrictions on economic and security assistance with Ethiopia over human rights abuses in Tigray.

Sanctions are not the only response to such atrocities. Last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the world’s largest humanitarian organization, the World Food Program, for its work in preventing “the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.” The WFP has learned over the years how to position aid more effectively during a conflict and even prevent conflict by preventing hunger.

The war in Tigray represents another chance for the world to break the link between war and starvation. The increasing strength of international humanitarian law, combined with accountability for those who violate it, can finally do it.

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