Peace Movement AWOL on Aggression

07/09/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our nation is blessed with a conscience that demands an end to unjust wars. During the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, tens of thousands of protesters chanted in the streets, crashed the phone system of Congress, and creatively made their collective shout of "No More War" heard.

Unfortunately, the anti-war movement was AWOL last month during one of the greatest opportunities humanity has ever had to put an end to war. During the first two weeks of June, representatives from 84 nations and more than 600 civil society groups met in Kampala, Uganda and took an historic first step towards criminalizing aggression.

Imagine the impact on future tyrants and misguided leaders if the reward for planning and carrying out an offensive war was a trip to the slammer. That's the vision tentatively embraced by delegates at the International Criminal Court's (ICC) first review conference. They hammered out a compromise that amended the ICC's treaty, the Rome Statute. They agreed to a definition of the crime of aggression and determined how the Court's Prosecutor and the UN Security Council can implement it.

The crime will primarily apply to those nations that seek the Court's protection and to those impolitic leaders whose actions upset the Security Council. Perpetrators of aggression could not be prosecuted until 2018 at the earliest. None the less, the Kampala Review Conference will go down in history as an important first step towards actually abolishing war. But, like any baby step, its taking the next step that really matters.

There is ample room for organizations like CODEPINK, United for Peace and Justice and MoveOn.org to claim that the crime of aggression was too much "in the weeds" for their members to appreciate. It was a complicated issue that split the human rights community over how war should be handled. The media coverage of the conference was underwhelming. There were no gritty images of bombed-out buildings, grieving families or body bags.

But looking forward, this should be a soul searching moment. Peace organizations, their leaders and funders need to answer a simple question: In addition to protesting the war du jour, are they willing to invest in a long term process to prevent future wars? Their answer could impact Americans' willingness to accept limits on the use of military force. Practically speaking it could determine if a future president will be dissuaded from embarking on another Iraq-like misadventure for fear of serving real jail time.

The ICC is the only permanent international court capable of trying individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and now aggression when there is no other recourse for justice. The Court has already indicted criminals accused of genocide, mass-murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, mass-rape, torture, forced recruitment of child soldiers, pillaging and more.

Ongoing prosecutions are having a useful deterrent effect. Sri Lanka and Nepal have abandoned their practice of recruiting child soldiers as a result of a current ICC trial of a Congolese warlord. Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir, accused of masterminding murder, extermination, and mass-rapes, has been purposefully ostracized from many key international meetings. He has received messages from governments such as South Africa along the lines of 'of course you are welcome to come to the meeting in our nation, but unfortunately if you do we will have to arrest you.' Like Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor and other sitting leaders accused of horrendous crimes, it is only a matter of time before he is apprehended.

By 2018 when the crime of aggression should come into force, the Court will have completed its initial cycle of trials and convictions. It will be a more mature institution and it will be more prepared to take on its enlarged scope. But will America and its peace movement be prepared to support it? Will our nation be ready to lead by example and accept the Court's jurisdiction? Much can happen in seven years, but now is the time to develop a strategy to finally allow the force of law to replace the law of force.

We are blessed with an opportunity to work for peace and justice. Imagine a future where cries of "end the war" can be legitimately replaced by silence; or at the very least, shouts of "jail the bum."