From Sierra Leone to Rwanda to Kosovo - and now East Timor - innocent civilians are being targeted for systematic displacement, rape, torture, and murder. And, as usual, the world helplessly looks on. Only after a humanitarian crisis or genocide has ravaged an entire population does the international community respond.
Little known to the American public, however, efforts are under way to develop a tool to combat these atrocities before they occur: an International Criminal Court (ICC). It will be a standing tribunal, unlike the ad hoc Rwanda and Yugoslavia war crimes tribunals administered by the United Nations. The court, which is still in the planning stages, will be tasked with investigating and prosecuting the most grievous of war crimes - crimes against humanity and genocide.
In July 1998, 120 nations signed the ICC treaty and confirmed that individuals could be held accountable for state-sponsored campaigns of terror. The United States - joining such exemplars of justice as China, Iran, Iraq, and Libya - voted against the statute.
Critics argue that an international tribunal would be ineffective, and could be abused by foes of the US to launch litigious vendettas against it. However, the White House should see the benefits offered by an ICC and engage US allies in making treaty changes that will garner its support.
War is an attempt to meet political ends through violent means. Nations at war are legally obligated to avoid directing that violence toward civilians. Doing so risks international disdain and reprisal that could ruin any political benefit they hope to achieve.
Yet, in civil wars leaders have tacitly been given free rein by the international community to unleash unconscionable acts of bloodletting on their own populations. The ICC will serve notice to these would-be transgressors that the international community will not tolerate genocide and will try to limit and rescind any political gain that is made through the illegitimate use of force.
Once indicted by the ICC, orchestrators of terror would be politically isolated and would find no comfort from the international community. Ultimately, those who would challenge the authority of the perpetrators would rise from within the government.
One need only look at Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to see how isolated and forsaken a leader can become. Not even Russia or China has been willing to provide quarter to an indicted war criminal. Mr. Milosevic's international assets have been frozen, and his political support in Serbia is now fractured. His days in power appear to be numbered.
However, if a leader intends to execute an illegitimate use of force for political gains, wouldn't it make sense to constrict those gains before the fact and reduce the incentives rather than addressing the atrocities after they have occurred? Had Milosevic calculated the costs of his brutal plan up front - the international community's repudiation and encouragement of his downfall - he might not have been so insistent on carrying out his campaign of terror.
Similarly, would Indonesian leaders have pursued a plan to ravage East Timor, slaughtering thousands and displacing many more, had they known an investigation would be triggered and followed by their alienation from the international community and possible reprisal?
To be sure, the current treaty is not perfect. There are legitimate concerns about the chance of politically motivated abuses of the court - highlighted by the reckless suggestions by Serb and Russian authorities that NATO committed war crimes during the Kosovo conflict.
But the ICC is potentially too important a tool against tyranny for the US to simply chuck it in the waste bin. The US should express its provisional support for the court and vigorously engage its allies to ensure that the ICC cannot be turned against those who fight for peace.
* M. Shane Smith is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations, in Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society