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

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].”

Although certain groups of the middle class and intelligentsia hope to revive the arrest warrant in the future, the majority of the populace especially the Arabs, choose to dismiss it as a bad memory.

While the chaos in Darfur persists, Bhaskar Chakravorty, an Indian businessman feels safer in Khartoum than in New Delhi and gives Bashir credit for it. “He had come to power through a coup d'etat yet he was no Idi Amin,” Chakravorty said.

“The president is powerful. People respect power. He has made attempts to reach to the people,” he added, noting the recent election results, despite the irregularities, reflected the will of the people.

But for human rights groups, seeing U.N. representatives and other governments welcome Bashir, makes even more graphic the failure to get justice for millions.

“Attendance also risks signaling that your government is not committed to the ICC's success,” Roth said, pointing out that it would send out a bad signal before the first review conference of the ICC's Rome Statute set to happen in Uganda in June.

But the U.N., more than any other institution or country, needs Bashir to stick around in Sudan, which has expelled humanitarian groups before. The U.N. sent its two chiefs of the U.N. peacekeeping missions, Haile Menkerios and Ibrahim Gambari, to the inauguration.

“The fact is that Mr. Bashir was elected by the Sudanese people as the president in the recent elections,” said Martin Nesirky, the U.N. spokesperson. “It is a political event as well as a ceremony that involves the swearing in of a head-of-state of a country where we have sizable missions.”

The ICC, however, is fighting back. For the first time, the court asked the U.N. Security Council to take action in the arrest of a former minister and a pro-government militia chief from Sudan who are wanted for war crimes in the Darfur conflict and are still at large.

The ICC did not mention Bashir but a special adviser to the ICC prosecutor, Beatrice le Fraper, told the BBC that similar action might be taken for the president and the “arrest warrant will not disappear.”

“It's very important that all those who attend the inauguration remember that it is first and foremost the inauguration of a man who has been charged with the crime of extermination,” le Fraper said.

On his last trip to brief the Security Council, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo also announced widening his investigations to cover officials who lied about Darfur. “My Office is considering the criminal responsibility of Sudanese officials who actively deny and dissimulate crime,” he said.

Lyman noted that away from home, however, Bashir had not won any hears and minds. “He has more credibility and power at home but it doesn’t change his image outside,” he said. “He still won’t be able to travel widely away from his country.”