Russia accused of ‘deliberate’ starvation tactics in Mariupol in submission to ICC

<span>People prepare food in a yard in the besieged southern port of Mariupol, Ukraine, on 23 March 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters</span>
People prepare food in a yard in the besieged southern port of Mariupol, Ukraine, on 23 March 2022.Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Russia engaged in a “deliberate pattern” of starvation tactics during the 85-day siege of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in early 2022, which amounted to a war crime, according to a fresh analysis submitted to the international criminal court.

The conclusion is at the heart of a dossier in the process of being submitted to the ICC in The Hague by the lawyers Global Rights Compliance, working in conjunction with the Ukrainian government. It argues that Russia and its leaders intended to kill and harm large numbers of civilians.

It has been estimated that 22,000 people were killed during the encirclement and capture of the city of Mariupol at the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Civilians were left without water, gas or electricity within days of the siege as temperatures fell below minus 10C.

Catriona Murdoch, a partner at Global Rights Compliance, said the aim of the research was “to see if there was a broader narrative” that amounted to a deliberate denial of food and other amenities necessary for life by the Russian military and its leadership, a strategy of starvation that could be said to amount to a war crime.

Related: Mariupol: The ruin of a city

“What we could see is that there were four phases to the Russian assault, starting with attacks on civilian infrastructure, cutting out the supply of electricity, heating and water. Then humanitarian evacuations were denied and even attacked, while aid was prevented from getting through,” Murdoch said.

“In the third phase, the remaining critical infrastructure was targeted, civilians terrorised with aid and water points bombed. Finally, in phase four, Russia engaged in strategic attacks to destroy or capture any remaining infrastructure items,” she said.

The phased targeting of Mariupol, she said, demonstrated that Russia had planned to capture the frontline city without mercy for its civilian population, which was estimated at 450,000 before the full invasion began in 24 February 2022.

The dossier concludes that an estimated 90% of healthcare facilities and homes in the city were destroyed or damaged during the siege, and food distribution points were bombed as well as humanitarian evacuation routes.

Given the importance of Mariupol and the centralisation of Russian decision-making, culpability for the deaths of thousands of civilians went to the top, it says. “Vladimir Putin is culpable,” Murdoch said, “and echelons of the Russian military leadership”, although she did not name commanders.

The ICC accepts third-party submissions although it does not necessarily act on them. Starvation and the denial of amenities necessary for civilian life are considered war crimes, but this remains a relatively new area of international law, and so far no alleged perpetrator has been prosecuted.

Last month, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor at the ICC, applied for an arrest warrant for Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and minister of defence, Yoav Gallant, arguing that the two had deliberately inflicted starvation on Palestinians in Gaza – a claim rejected by Israel.

“Israel has intentionally and systematically deprived the civilian population in all parts of Gaza of objects indispensable to human survival,” Khan said. Three Hamas leaders were also subject to similar applications, relating to the war that began with the attack by the group on Israel on 7 October.

Murdoch said Khan’s applications for the arrest warrants linked to the conflict in Gaza “were the first of their kind” relating to starvation as a war crime, and had highlighted the issue in the minds of lawyers and prosecutors. “What it showed is where the ICC’s thinking is,” she said.

The lawyers said initially they were unsure as to how easy it would be to create a war crimes dossier for Mariupol because the Russian occupation made evidence-gathering difficult, despite the fierce fighting and high numbers of casualties.

But they developed a technique that used a specially created algorithm to map the destruction of specific locations, as monitored by satellite imagery, with what explosives experts assessed as Russian attacks.