Given the history of the Sudanese government’s brutal treatment of the population of Darfur,some adverse reaction to last week’s indictment of President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC) was expected-but nothing quite as bad as what happened. A dozen major international aid agencies and a couple of local ones were immediately expelled from Darfur,and many from the country altogether; staff were unceremoniously escorted to waiting planes while their computers,files and much else were confiscated by the authorities. The remaining aid agencies have been put on notice,and could be next.
The NGOs that were expelled from Sudan provided much of the food,water and medicine to the 2.75m refugees who live in temporary camps in Darfur. So this move is,above all,a huge blow to the fragile humanitarian lifeline that has been keeping the wretched victims of the Darfur conflict alive. By some estimates,the NGOs that have been kicked out contributed 80% of the workers who distributed the World Food Programme’s aid in Darfur-the people,that is,who actually gave the food to the refugees in the camps. They also maintained boreholes and water pumps in the camps. Without clean water,diseases are likely to spread quickly. Meningitis has already struck one camp.
The Sudanese government has given no official explanation for the expulsions,but has made spurious allegations that all these aid agencies were involved in a conspiracy to supply the ICC with the evidence to prosecute Mr Bashir and his henchmen. More to the point,the Sudanese government evidently has no backup plan to replace the vital services the NGOs provided. Although it is clear that the expulsions were planned carefully in advance,it is equally clear that no thought was given to who would do the expelled workers’ jobs instead. This makes the action doubly callous. As usual,it is the ordinary Darfuris who will bear the burden of the government’s vindictiveness.
Since 2003 about 300,000 people have died as a result of the fighting in Darfur. Before more do,the world should therefore push hard to make Sudan reverse its decision. At the very least,Mr Bashir should be pressed to let the 2,000 or so Sudanese nationals who worked for the expelled aid agencies be re-employed by the smaller NGOs that remain. Their expertise could save the lives of thousands of Darfuris. If the government does nothing,and thus causes even more deaths,they should be added to Mr Bashir’s charge-sheet.
Not enough just to say should
Yet the attitude of many countries over the past week to the ICC’s indictment has been worse than disappointing. Many have expressed dismay at the ICC’s decision and yet said nothing about the expulsion of the aid agencies. China,long Sudan’s main backer,blocked a mere press statement from the UN Security Council that would have condemned Mr Bashir’s government for the move. Such countries say they want the Security Council to defer the ICC’s indictment,on the ground that seeking justice against Mr Bashir will upset the “peace process” in Darfur. They would have a reasonable point if there were indeed a genuine peace process under way which the indictment would jeopardise. But Mr Bashir has long since emptied the process of meaning. His government has done nothing to bring any of the mass killers to justice. In these circumstances,the ICC has become the last resort.
Mr Bashir’s cry that the ICC is a weapon of Western neo-colonialism has gone down well with some African governments,many Arab leaders and Iran. Not all African countries have rallied to his support,however. Sierra Leone,for instance,which experienced horrors rather like Darfur’s,has become a strong proponent of justice and a firm believer in the part it must play in ending conflicts. Most African governments subscribe to a peer review mechanism that invites them to judge each other’s human rights records. Few,unfortunately,take this seriously.
The court’s decision gets more support from ordinary people. Darfuris themselves are well aware of how they might be punished for backing the ICC; yet,despite the indictment of two Darfuri rebel leaders along with members of the government in Khartoum,it is hard to find anyone aside from Mr Bashir’s few Arab supporters in the main towns who opposes the court’s action. Justice matters even-perhaps especially-to people who have nothing.
Now that Mr Bashir has compounded his original crime,it is all the more important that he should be put in the dock. To get him there,countries that believe in justice must throw all their political weight behind the indictment. Some poor-country governments,fearful that they too might one day be held to account for their actions,will inevitably attack this as “neo-colonialism”. Too bad.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009