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Opinion: UN presence at Bashir’s inauguration spells trouble for ICC

Sudan government maintains that dignitaries at Bashir's inauguration, despite ICC charges against him, means trial close to being over.

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir welcomes Eritrea's President Issaias Afewerki (centre left) at Khartoum Airport, May 26, 2010. Afewerki was in the country to attend the swearing-in ceremony of President al-Bashir. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

UNITED NATIONS, New York — The International Criminal Court was wounded by the defiance of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir who rejected its authority after being indicted last year. To make matters worse, Bashir was re-elected and then, further rubbing salt in the ICC’s wounds, key United Nations officials attended his inauguration in Khartoum on Thursday.

The Sudan government, which never recognized the ICC’s jurisdiction, now asserts that the presence of the U.N. and dignitaries from neighboring African countries implies that even the international community is on its way to dismissing the trial. No high-level officials from the West attended.

“It is doomed to fail like the League of Nations,” said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, Sudanese envoy to the U.N. “We call it the Guantanamo Bay of Europe since it has nothing to do with justice and fair play.”

The conflict between the ethnic tribes of Darfur and the predominantly Arab government has been raging for nearly a decade. The rebel groups want greater political autonomy and economic empowerment after decades of marginalization.

At the height of the storm, the notorious government-backed militia, the Janjaweed, killed and raped civilians while burning down hundreds of villages. In March 2009, the ICC charged Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity but not genocide.

More than 2 million people have been displaced. While large-scale atrocities are no longer being perpetrated, the fighting persists. By some counts, the death toll stands at 300,000 but the Sudanese governments put the number at 10,000.

“We believe attending the inauguration would send a terrible message to victims of international crimes not only in Darfur, but globally, that their suffering is being disregarded,” Kenneth Roth, head of Human Right Watch, wrote in a recent letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The U.N., however, doesn’t appear to have a choice because it needs to run two peacekeeping missions in Darfur and South Sudan. Ban insisted that his representatives were at the ceremony only in their political capacity. “What they are doing is not more than that, they are doing exactly within the framework of their mandate,” he said.

The unfolding events also give credence to the theory that international justice cannot be dealt unless backed up by the right political cards. Right now, Bashir is a powerful leader and there is little anyone can do to displace him.

“Someone has to arrest him and that kind of political support is not there,” said Princeton Lyman, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who suggests dropping the whole ICC business for the moment. “This is a very delicate and awkward situation but neither the U.S. nor the U.N. can afford to isolate him [Bashir].”