Bashir raises his voice
It took a little over a year for Luis Moreno Ocampo, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, to push through his request to indict Sudanese president Omar el-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It took a little less than a day for Bashir to decry the move as colonialist and put the court in the delicate position of enforcing the decision or risk losing credibility as an instrument of international humanitarian law.
In response to charges that he masterminded the genocide in Darfur, Bashir anounced to a cheering crowd in the capital of Khartoum that “Sudan is raising its voice. It rejects the hegemony, the colonialists.” He capped the speech with the bold proclamation that “we are ready to face you;” with the “you” in question being the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Security Council.
This was on March 4th. Since then, all hell has broken loose. Almost immediately after the warrant was issued, the Sudanese government expelled thirteen foreign aid groups working within the country, effectively cutting Darfur off from its only source of humanitarian aid and further exacerbating tensions with the West. Domestically, the decision resulted in problems among government officials, and on March 10th the French news site Sudan Tribune reported that the pro-government newspaper Akhir–Lahza published a letter signed by five Sudanese jihadist groups declaring their intent to execute 250 attacks against countries supportive of the ICC.
In other words, neither Bashir nor pro-government forces are taking the decision lightly. The magnitude of the situation arises from the fact that the ICC has entered into uncharted territory for international law. There is no precedent for issuing an arrest warrant against a standing leader, and as of now, nobody knows exactly how things are going to play out. With the knowledge that leaving Sudan could carry the threat of arrest, Bashir has canceled an upcoming trip to Egypt, and now is hard at work rallying groups in Sudan against the decision.
One useful precedent for Sudan comes from Spanish Judge Balthazar Garzón, a man who rose to fame prosecuting the domestic terrorist group ETA and later gained international prominence attempting to arrest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In 1998, Garzón issued an arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet while he was traveling in England, the first such charge against a former Western leader. Although Garzón’s request to extradite Pinochet to Spain was ultimately defeated, Pinochet was held in England for seventeen months, twice denied immunity, and by the time he was finally released to Chile for medical reasons, hundreds of charges had surfaced against him. He was ultimately sentenced to house arrest, a fate unthinkable just two years earlier, and he died in 2006 before having stood trial. Since then, Garzón has publicly criticized US activity in Guantanamo Bay and expressed an interest in investigating former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
While the cases are obviously very different, the Pinochet case was one of the first that urged people rethink immunity surrounding a previously untouchable figure. Prior to Garzón’s warrant, Pinochet had been living comfortably in Chile, safeguarded by both government immunity and the fear he had embedded in Chilean society.
But even when arresting a standing leader is now possible, as David Rieff points out in a 2008 LA Times op-ed, it may not necessarily be desireable. Prosecuting war criminals is never a simple endeavor, and in certain cases, it can actually obstruct efforts towards recovery. Peace and justice, Rieff notes, are rarely aligned, and when it comes time to choose between the two, peace should take priority. As tension and violence escalates in Sudan, this seems especially important to bear in mind.