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Bashir warrant should make dictators wary

Experts say International Criminal Court decision against Sudan's president sends a warning.

A woman holds a poster of Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir during a demonstration in Khartoum, against the International Criminal Court (ICC) for issuing an arrest warrant for Bashir on March 4, 2009. The arrest warrant for Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur is the first issued by the Hague-based court against a sitting head of state since it was set up in 2002. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

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.”