The decision by the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur was a legal landmark.
It is the first time since the Hague tribunal was set up in 2002 that it has indicted a standing head of state. The decision was immediately hailed by human rights campaigners as a warning to dictators around the world.
“This announcement is an important signal, both for Darfur and the rest of the world, that suspected human rights violators will face trial, no matter how powerful they are,” said Irene Kahn, secretary general of Amnesty International.
The court said Bashir, 65, was suspected of being criminally responsible for directing attacks against “an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians and pillaging their property.”
However, the panel of judges voted two-to-one against charging Bashir with genocide, saying that prosecutors had failed to provide sufficient evidence that Bashir had specific intent to destroy ethnic, racial or religious groups.
The United Nations estimates that at least 300,000 Sudanese have died and 2.7 million have been forced from their homes in the fighting that has convulsed the western region of Darfur since 2003.
The indictment places Bashir firmly at the front of a rogues’ gallery of leaders accused of horrific crimes, alongside the likes of Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Both these leaders were eventually brought to trial after leaving office, and the warrant for Bashir serves notice to other leaders that nobody is above the law. It may give the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe a sleepless night.
The warrant means that all 108 nations that are members of the court are bound to arrest Bashir, who has been president of Africa’s largest nation since 1993.
Despite that, bringing Bashir to trial won’t be easy. The Sudanese authorities say they will ignore the warrant, and a defiant Bashir has mocked the court, telling the judges they can “eat” the warrant.
Bashir danced on the podium before a crowd of thousands at the opening of a new hydroelectric dam in northern Sudan where he told his supporters that a warrant would “not be worth the ink it is written with.”
Sudanese officials said Bashir plans to attend an Arab summit later this month in Qatar, which does not recognize the court. They also indicate that African nations — even the 30 that are members of the court — will not seek to detain Bashir or prevent him travelling for summits.
Some diplomats believe African and Arab states may seek to have the prosecution suspended by the UN Security Council. The court’s statutes allow for such a move although it could be blocked by the United States and other Western nations that have been strongly critical of the militias loyal to Bashir for their brutal suppression of the rebellion in Darfur.
The ICC has no police force, and the 30,000 UN and African Union troops in Sudan have no mandate to arrest Bashir.
The ICC issued the warrant despite diplomatic concerns that it could provoke a backlash from the Sudanese government and its supporters, jeopardizing a fragile 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of civil war between Khartoum and rebels in the south of the country as well as negotiations to end the conflict in the western Darfur region.
One veteran UN diplomat who regularly travels to Sudan told GlobalPost the warrant risked destabilizing peace and reconstruction efforts without having any real impact on Bashir’s position, particularly since Asian nations, such as China, India and Malaysia, which have invested heavily in oil-rich Sudan have not signed on to the international court.
Thousands of Bashir’s supporters gathered in Khartoum on Wednesday to protest the indictment, raising fears of retaliation against Western interests. The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) said that it had been ordered by the Sudanese government to immediately remove all international staff from relief projects in south and western Darfur, saying it could not guarantee their safety.
Although the decision is unlikely to lead to Bashir’s early arrest some observers believe it could undermine support for him among the Sudanese army and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
“There are increasingly those within the senior ranks of the NCP who believe Bashir’s policy of confrontation with Sudan’s peripheral regions has been counterproductive,” the International Crisis Group said. “To preserve its economic interests and guarantee its survival, the NCP is likely to look for a way out of a situation, by changing its policies or leadership.”
The think tank’s deputy president, Nick Grono, played down fears that the court’s decision could spark wider unrest, saying Sudan’s international backers in China and the Gulf States would put pressure on the government to avoid instability that would threaten their economic interests.
“For the millions of Darfuri victims, this landmark decision provides independent legal recognition of the massive crimes committed against them, and confirms that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Bashir is personally criminally responsible” Grono said.
The Save Darfur Coalition welcomed the warrant as “a game changing moment” and called on the U.S. to play a key role in ending the conflict in Darfur.
“The Obama administration should take advantage of this opportunity to lead a coordinated international effort to negotiate peace in Darfur, while ensuring immediate protection of civilians and support for the court’s pursuit of justice,” said Save Darfur’s president Jerry Fowler.
But while the warrant was welcomed by some — mostly in the West — there were protests and defiance from others in Sudan itself.
The government there has branded the ICC bid to bring Bashir to justice neo-colonial and a Western plot. “It is a flawed decision,” said Mahjoub Fadul, Sudan’s presidential spokesman. “We do not recognize it, nor the court that issued it and we do not care about it at all.”
Bashir’s scorn seemed not to worry the ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. “Omar al-Bashir's destiny is to face justice,” he said. “In two months or in two years, he will face justice.”
Ames reported from Brussels; McConnell reported from Nairobi.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Africa: