04/09/2012 04:29 EDT | Updated 06/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Why Aren't We Putting Al-Shabaab Terrorists Behind Bars?

Recently, the British Government held a major international conference on Somalia. Simply put, in the case of Somalia, Al Shabaab could be considered an "organization" that has a systematic policy of preventing civilians from accessing food aid, and should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Only the end of impunity will guarantee a lasting peace in Somalia.

Recently, the British Government held a major international conference on Somalia. The gathering was attended by heads of government and senior representatives from more than 50 countries and organizations. Canada's delegation was led by foreign affairs minister John Baird and the United States sent their top diplomat, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

The main purpose of the conference was to construct a new, effective and robust international approach to Somalia. It was hoped that this would produce valuable momentum that will enable the Somali people to stabilize their country. This is a tall order as Somalia is currently a failed state whose people continue to experience almost constant conflict, malnutrition, and a brutal terrorist campaign from Al Shabaab, a terrorist group that last week announced a formal merger with Al Qaeda.

On the humanitarian front, there is a very narrow window of opportunity to act. According to Jose Graziano da Silva, the head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there are less than 100 days left to avoid a new famine in Somalia. There is serious concern that if Somalis do not have the security to tend their crops and animals, or the freedom to access clean water and food in the markets, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate once again.

What was not included in this upcoming conference is a determination by the international community to end decades of impunity for political violence in Somalia. Specifically, measures need to be taken against those that were almost single-handedly responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Somalis during the famine of 2011. There is ample evidence that Al Shabaab had set up internment camps to imprison mostly women and children who were desperately looking for food and water.

The group did not want to lose the population under its control, as their exodus to other areas would deprive them of recruits, tax revenue and legitimacy. This ghastly record could form a solid basis for an indictment for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). International law defines crimes against humanity as a systematic attack on a specific civilian population. Murder, extermination, torture, rape, and other inhumane acts only reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of the policy of a government or an organization that is the de facto authority in a given territory.

Simply put, in the case of Somalia, Al Shabaab could be considered an "organization" that has a systematic policy of preventing civilians from accessing food aid. Members of the United Nations Security Council that attended the International Conference on Somalia can easily refer the Al Shabaab to the ICC. They would not be advocating military force but would simply call for a criminal investigation.

In addition to this legal move against Al Shabaab, members of the international community must make it very clear to Somali politicians that corruption in the form of the diversion of food aid will not be tolerated. The lives of 40 per cent of the people in Somalia that rely on food aid should not be jeopardized by officials who view this aid as an opportunity to enrich themselves. Travel bans and asset freezes put in place by donor countries to target corrupt government ministers in other African countries have led to a very sharp reduction in corruption.

Recent moves by reformers in the Somali government to institute good governance and reform are encouraging. An anti-corruption commission has been set up although its effectiveness is yet to be determined. Just last week, Somali leaders signed a plan to try to end the country's political crisis. The agreement sets up a smaller parliament and the constitutional structure of the future Somali government that will replace the existing transitional government, whose mandate expires in August.

The Somali people's main desire is to enjoy the peace, prosperity and good governance that can only come from the establishment of viable state institutions. Previous international peace conferences on Somalia have emphasized reconciliation at the expense of obtaining justice for the victims of unspeakable violence and terror. The result was that warlords with blood on their hands were given government posts in the hope of securing a lasting peace. Predictably, these warlords found it difficult to end their addiction to the extortion of civilians and the looting of food aid.

It is time to empower the efforts of Somalis to break the back of this culture of impunity. Referring the Al Shabaab terrorist group to the ICC will be an important step that will begin to address the underlying causes of the instability in Somalia instead of always addressing the symptoms.