Monday, 9 March 2009

Why the arrest warrant against al-Bashir was the right step to take

Last Thursday, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan. He is being indicted with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. Apart from the fact that the Sudanese Government does not recognise the ICC and the ICC has no mechanism of its own to execute an arrest warrant, Mr al-Bashir is also the first sitting head of state ever indicted by the ICC. An easy surrender to The Hague was realistically not to be expected. But instead of keeping a low profile or consulting with lawyers, Mr al Bashir reacted with banning 13 international aid agencies and NGOs from Sudan.

The ICC was founded in 2002. The task of this permanent tribunal is to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. So far, it has issued arrest warrants for thirteen people, of whom seven remain free, two have died, and four are in custody. One of the seven free people is Ahmed Mohammed Haroun . Mr Haroun Haroun allegedly recruited, funded and armed the Janjaweed militia, and incited attacks against civilian populations. The ICC issued an arrest warrant against him in April 2007, but despite international pressure on the government of Sudan to surrender him to the ICC, he continues to serve as Sudan's Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs. In September 2007, he was appointed to lead an investigation into human rights violations in Darfur.

Assessing Omar al-Bashir’s reaction to his arrest warrant whilst considering the track record of the Sudanese Government’s cooperation not only with the ICC but generally with international institutions raises the question of whether issuing the warrant was a strategically wise idea.

Let me be precise: I am not among the critiques of the ICC and its work, and I do not doubt its importance. But Mr al-Bashir’s reaction could have been expected, and the people of Sudan are, in the first instance, not benefactors, but victims of this step. Around 6,500 aid workers from organisations such as Oxfam, M├ędecins sans Frontiers and Save the Children will have to leave Sudan, leaving thousands of people with no access to clean water or medical care.

So the question is: Is the issue of a warrant which in the near future has no realistic chance to be executed a natural consequence of the humanitarian obligations the International community stand for?
The answer is simple: Of course it is. After only 5 years of existence, it is hard to say how much power and influence the ICC will bear throughout history, but one of the strengths it already has is its symbolic powers. It raises awareness and it calls on the International community to live up to their global responsibilities.

But more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether NOT issuing an arrest warrant against al-Bashir would be a modern version of appeasement. And again the answer is yes. Traditionally, Appeasement is seen as negotiating with a dictator to avoid an armed conflict. As a policy, it has become out of fashion, and of course I am not suggesting the invasion of Sudan. But ignoring Mr al-Bashir’s terrible record of crimes against humanity in order to not awaken his wrath would be an act of cowardice and would in the long term neither serve justice nor the interest of the Sudanese people. Will the arrest warrant against their President lead to any relief from their sufferings? No, probably not. But international cooperation should lead to an improvement in the poorest, most neglected parts of the world.

The International Community needs to show that it cares about the Human Rights situation in Sudan despite its rich oil reserves. What the British Government, together with the European Union and other international friends and partners need to do now is to try and encourage countries that could make a difference, such as China and Russia, do use their influence. The arrest warrant is a small, but important step. It is our global responsibility to not let it become an unarmed soldier.

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