Many news sources say cutting off a region from water, intentionally is a war crime.

This is rooted in proclimations like the INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS (ICRC),

In essence, water is a civilian object and, as such, protected by humanitarian law. But in addition, water is indispensable for the survival of the civilian population. Hence, it has been granted special protection, including water sanitation and distribution installations.

And, other statements by UN officials against collective punishment.

What services though can you cut off a civilian population from and prevail in the eyes of the UN? What treaties protect these services?

  • Can you cut off water to a population?
  • Can you cut off power to a population?
  • Can you deny a civilian population access to aid?
  • 1
    The answers are subtle. See guide-humanitarian-law.org/content/article/3/siege-1 . There is certainly no obligation to feed and water your enemy in a war.
    – Simd
    Oct 25, 2023 at 5:14
  • Your first source continues with: Attacks against civilian objects and, in particular, against objects that are indispensable for the survival of the civilian population are war crimes. Withholding services previous given before the conflict began is not an attack. Oct 25, 2023 at 9:51
  • @MarkJohnson the quote says explicitly "In essence, water is a civilian object". Not the infrastructure behind it the water itself. As in, turning off the water is an attack. Oct 25, 2023 at 13:20
  • 1
    Attack | (Oxford Dictionary) Encyclopedia.com: take aggressive action against (a place or enemy forces) with weapons or armed force, typically in a battle or war Again: Withholding services previously given before the conflict began is not an attack. Oct 25, 2023 at 18:03
  • @Simd from your source: "starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited"
    – phoog
    Oct 26, 2023 at 3:27

2 Answers 2


Article 8, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

For the purpose of this Statute, ‘war crimes’ means:


b. Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict, within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts:


xxiv. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law;

xxv. Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions;

  • International law does permits sieges with caveats. See guide-humanitarian-law.org/content/article/3/siege-1
    – Simd
    Oct 25, 2023 at 5:13
  • This answer doesn't really address the points in the question. Missing in the list, but relevant in this conflict: a. viii. Taking of hostages. ; b. xxiii. Utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations; Oct 25, 2023 at 9:44
  • Conceded. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, the law doesn't get into the specifics OP is asking about.
    – bdb484
    Oct 25, 2023 at 13:16
  • 2
    @MarkJohnson what does the taking of hostages have to do with turning off utilities? I feel the Zionist apologia on this thread is really distracting from my question. No one is defending Hamas. This question isn't about Israel. The question is very specific to Can you cut off water to a population? Can you cut off power to a population? Can you deny a civilian population access to aid? Oct 25, 2023 at 13:44
  • The question is really, is it legal to cut off supplies to a civilian population if that is the only way to cut off supplies to their military. The answer may well be yes but it needs a legal expert.
    – Simd
    Oct 26, 2023 at 13:26

War Crime vs Crime Against Humanity

There are two crimes in the Rome Statue, "war crime" and the inferior "crimes against humanity". Colloquially these two charges seems to be conflated. A "Crime Against Humanity" in the course of a war, does not elevate it to a "War Crime". Outside the UN, other organizations may informally claim a "war crime" is any actionable crime of international law that occurred during a war. Moreover, crimes against humanity "have not yet been codified in a dedicated treaty of international law unlike genocide and war crimes".

A "Crime Against Humanity", is defined as

  1. For the purpose of this Statute, ‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
    • d. Deportation or forcible transfer of population
    • h. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
    • j. The crime of apartheid;
    • k. Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

For the purpose of paragraph 1: ‘Attack directed against any civilian population’ means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack;

Under the Elements of the Crime, "Extermination", "Deportation or forcible transfer of population", "Persecution", and most notably a more vague catchall of "other inhumane acts."

In summary, if the belligerent did so "with knowledge of the attack" and it was "committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population"

  • and,

    • you have an "inhumane act" that causes "great suffering" by intentionally targeting a civilian population you have a crime against humanity.
    • or, you can show the group being targeting regardless of suffering, you have "persecution" a crime against humanity.
    • or, you can show a blockade is a crime against humanity if it was part of scheme of
      • "deportation or forcible transfer of population"
      • "a crime of apartheid"

I believe you can make a convincing case that intentionally starving or denying water to a civilian population is likely to cause "great suffering" and constitute an "inhumane act". Which is all that's needed here.

Though with intentionality it seems this act likely also fall into "persecution" which is pretty broad, and since most of the forms of persecution seem to be explicit elements of apartheid -- that also rather suitable. Apartheid excludes persecution on gender, and religion for example, and is defined as a system of "racial discrimination" which is explained in UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) convention

the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

I would say the right to water is a fundamental freedom, which is affirmed by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council,

In 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 64/292 recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. Subsequently, the Human Rights Council, in September 2010, affirmed this recognition.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .