A triumph for justice or a blow to peace in Sudan? The warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the arrest of Sudan’s president,Omar al-Bashir,on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes the court’s first against a sitting head of state grimly spells out the suffering of the people of Sudan’s western region of Darfur: murder,extermination,torture,rape,pillage,the forcible transfer of people and deliberate attacks on civilians. Since 2003 some 300,000 Darfuris have died as a result of the conflict and around 2.7m have been forced from their homes. A third count,of genocide,was struck down,but Mr Bashir can take no comfort. Give us more evidence,said the ICC judges,and we’ll restore it.
Mr Bashir is defiant. So too are many African leaders,who seem to show more solidarity with perpetrators than with victims. Yet not all opposition to the ICC’s warrant is craven. Some fear that attempts to bring Mr Bashir to justice could increase the violence in Darfur and threaten an already fragile,separate peace deal between north and south Sudan.
Sudan’s expulsion of aid agencies following the indictment shows that the danger is real. Where justice has to be weighed against the urgent need to end violence,peace must sometimes come first. That is why the UN Security Council can suspend cases brought before the ICC. At one point it seemed that the stick of indictment and carrot of suspension could make Mr Bashir soften his war on the Darfuris. To that end envoys have jetted to Khartoum from all corners of the globe,including China,one of his chief backers. UN and African Union emissaries and peacekeepers have tried to prevent further atrocities by his forces and government-backed militias and to hold the ring for peace talks. The Security Council first discussed sanctions,then last year the possibility of deferring the case against Mr Bashir. Had he reined in the attacks,co-operated better with peacekeepers and the court and tried peacemaking,he might have wriggled off the ICC hook. He didn’t bother.
So what now?
One hope is that the ICC’s indictment will persuade Mr Bashir’s subordinates to hand their boss over to The Hague. The other,more plausible,is that he will himself at last mend his ways,in return for the Security Council deferring the case. But neither is likely to occur unless there is widespread international support for the court. All 108 governments that have ratified its statutes are duty-bound to try to bring Mr Bashir to justice. But so should the powers on the Security Council,including America,China and Russia,which are not ICC members: the council referred Darfur to the ICC for investigation,and should now back the arrest warrant too. The more countries back the court,the less likely Mr Bashir is to continue his defiance or take revenge on Darfuris.
America in particular needs to abandon its past hostility to the ICC. George Bush at first set out to destroy it: “unsigning” the Rome treaty that set up the court,strong-arming governments to exempt Americans from its proceedings and threatening to spring them by force,if need be,from the ICC’s clutches. Yet when it came to Darfur,even Mr Bush accepted that an independent international court had a useful role: America wanted Mr Bashir brought to justice and so withheld its veto,allowing the case to go to the ICC for investigation.
Barack Obama could go further by tearing up the infamous unsigning letter,joining the discussion about the court’s future and inviting Congress to align America’s laws,especially on crimes against humanity,with the ICC’s new gold standard of international justice. That would leave the ICC to look after the Bashirs of this world,and America to look after its own.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009