Editor's note: Jens David Ohlin is associate professor of law at Cornell Law School and the co-author (with George Fletcher) of "Defending Humanity: When Force is Justified and Why" (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Somalia is known to most Americans as the setting for the book and film "Black Hawk Down" and as the world center for modern-day pirates. It is the poster child for failed humanitarian interventions and for good intentions gone wrong.
But none of that should blind Americans to the horrific humanitarian crisis developing in Somalia, a growing famine that threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of people if they do not receive help from the international community.
Of course, many of the problems that doomed the U.S. intervention in 1992, and led to "Black Hawk Down," remain. Despite years of diplomatic efforts, Somalia persists in a state of near anarchy. The central government controls only a fraction of the country, and warlords with private militia still battle each other for control of territory and trade. Now, an Islamic insurgency has further eroded security in the region, and organized groups of pirates use Somalia's anarchy as a launching point for raids against merchant vessels.
A humanitarian intervention in Somalia might be politically difficult for President Barack Obama to justify. With U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as military operations in Libya continuing without congressional approval, Obama has likely used up his political capital.
But this does not mean that there are no options. The U.N. Security Council can - and should - refer the situation to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for a full investigation into crimes against humanity in Somalia.