It has been quite a week. For the first time, the international community indicted a sitting president of a sovereign state. Omar al-Bashir of Sudan stands accused by the International Criminal Court in The Hague of “crimes against humanity and war crimes” committed in the course of the Khartoum regime’s brutal suppression of the revolt in the country’s far western province of Darfur. Having indicted two other figures associated with the regime in 2007, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo began building a case against the man at the top, and on Wednesday, the court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest.
The court’s decision to pursue a war-crimes trial against a current head of state is an important historical precedent for the cause of international justice. If the decision makes even one other person in power control the impulse to quash dissent with violence, it will have been worthwhile.
Few think, of course, that Bashir will be taken into custody any time soon. Sudan is not party to the Rome Statute creating the ICC, and even UN Security Council Resolution 1593, which referred the Darfur matter to the court in 2005, says that Khartoum has “no obligation under the statute.”
The real debate pertaining to Sudan at the moment is whether this indictment will actually be useful in forwarding peace negotiations and ending the war in Darfur. Human-rights organizations and other proponents of the ICC option, including Bishop Desmond Tutu, cite the heightened pressure that Khartoum will presumably now feel to resolve the conflict through political rather than military means. On the other hand, critics, including the African Union and the Arab League, argue that Bashir’s incentive to resume peace talks will be reduced.
What is missing in this debate is the question of how to bring about a durable resolution to the Darfur crisis in the long term. Bashir, after all, is a single leader among many others responsible for the mass murders in Darfur. The problem for Sudan, and for the people of Darfur, is much larger than the president. His arrest—should it transpire—would be a first step toward achieving a semblance of justice for the thousands murdered at his behest. But even trial and punishment for Bashir would not temper the authoritarian nature of the regime in Khartoum or halt the horrific violence against the Darfuri people.
What is needed is vigorous international diplomacy to boost the prospects of clean elections in 2009 and to extend the provisions of Khartoum’s peace deal with the rebels in the south to the rest of the country.
These elections are pivotal to resolving the Darfur crisis as well. Sudan was witness to the longest running civil war in the south until the implantation of the comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2005 between the Islamist regime in Khartoum and the insurgent rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Amid the reporting of the horrific killings in Darfur and the precedent-setting decision of the ICC against Bashir and his cronies in Khartoum, little attention has been paid to the role that democracy can play in addressing the roots of the Darfur conflict and the political demands of the majority of Sudanese opposed to Beshir’s rule. This will prove to be a fatal flaw for those interested in long-term peace in Sudan.
The Bashir regime is attempting to hold the elections quickly to generate more support internationally against the ICC warrant while simultaneously circumventing reform demands from Sudanese civil society, to continue to monopolize political power in the country. The international community can use the ICC resolution to force Khartoum to meet these demands at a time when Khartoum is under international pressure. In addition, they can ensure the dispatch of election monitors to ensure free and fair elections.
Taken together this would meet the most important political demand for the people of Darfur for greater political representation.
By Bashir’s calculation, the ICC decision is not the end of the road. His primary objective is to consolidate his junta’s power by expanding oil production in Darfur and elsewhere. Only a genuinely democratic transition stands in the way of this objective.
The ICC’s warrant for Bashir’s arrest will have little effect in resolving the larger problem in Sudan: the lack of participatory politics. Only if this warrant is followed by a concerted effort to support free and fair elections will it fulfill its promise.
Otherwise, the end result of the ICC’s intervention, as the critics say, could be to further marginalize the people of Darfur, threaten the peace deal in the south and undermine the struggles of civil-society organizations to bridge ethnic divides in Africa’s largest country.