Defanging the International Criminal Court

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Yesterday at the United Nations, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy held out the carrot of immunity for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir if he implements “radical and immediate change in Sudanese policies.” Britain is reportedly in agreement with staying the International Criminal Court’s war crimes investigation. (China, Russia, the Arab League, and the African Union were already on board with the immunity deal.)

And so the organ of blind international justice is being reduced to just another political bargaining chip in a disastrously long conflict that’s proven immune to such wheeling and dealing. Just as bad, the approach could be completely misguided by removing what might prove to be one of the few effective pressure tactics on Sudan to date. An interesting piece in Britain’s new Standpoint magazine argues that ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s much-maligned campaign for war crime charges against al-Bashir may actually be rattling Khartoum toward change.

Here’s Justin Marozzi, who spent the summer as a communications adviser for the joint U.N.-African Union force in Darfur, writing for Standpoint:

Many commentators fear [Moreno-Ocampo’s] decision will wreck any chances of peace, failing to note that there is no peace process to spoil. With his back to the wall, there is no accounting what Bashir might do, they argue, ignoring the fact that he has had carte blanche to do what he likes in Darfur since 2003. In fact, although it is early days, the fallout from the ICC’s landmark move towards the indictment of Bashir looks positive. A friend with access to the highest levels of the regime reports unprecedented conversations at the presidential palace.

“The government’s in meltdown,” he reports. “They just didn’t think it would ever happen. They can’t believe it. The four or five people who run Sudan are now saying to Bashir, look where your policies have got us. They’re telling him, you can go to your rallies and demonstrations, you can shake your fist and rattle your walking stick, but you shut the hell up.” … 

Now a national cross-party committee has been created to address the Darfur issue and end the conflict. Bashir has suddenly rediscovered an interest in Darfur, promising security, schools, roads and water. Window-dressing while the ICC judges ponder Moreno Ocampo’s evidence? Quite possibly, but these are suddenly interesting times. “There’s going to be a real push now for peace,” my palace mole reports. “Bashir’s got nothing to lose.”

Far from emboldening the Sudanese president and destroying a peace process that doesn’t exist, in other words, the ICC’s potential indictment may have been the best news for Darfur in years. Sudan watchers wonder whether Khartoum will finally ditch the president, who came to power in a 1989 coup, noting that the regime dropped the Islamic ideologue Hassan al-Turabi in the late Nineties in a bid to end its international isolation. Turabi, they note, was a far more important figure to the ruling National Congress Party then than Bashir is today.

Late last month, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting noted “rumblings of dissent” in Sudanese media and among fringe political circles in the wake of Moreno-Ocampo’s announcement to seek an arrest warrant for al-Bashir. Marozzi, however, goes further, placing dissent in the mouths of those with influence. Removing this key instigator of dissent–the threat of prosecution–could very well restore the status quo, which translates to more death and disaster for the people of Darfur.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading one of the best pieces written on Darfur in recent memory–yes, the genocide has tragically gone on long enough to justify that statement–check out this piece from Richard Just in the New Republic. A snippet:

No genocide has ever been so thoroughly documented while it was taking place. There were certainly no independent film-makers in Auschwitz in 1942, and the best-known Holocaust memoirs did not achieve a wide audience until years after the war. The world more or less looked the other way as genocide unfolded in Cambodia during the 1970s, and the slaughter in Rwanda happened so quickly–a mere hundred days–that by the time the public grasped the extent of the horror, the killing was done. But here is Darfur, whose torments are known to all. The sheer volume of historical, anthropological, and narrative detail available to the public about the genocide is staggering. In the case of the genocide in Darfur, ignorance has never been possible. But the genocide continues. We document what we do not stop. The truth does not set anybody free.

Image of displaced mother and child in North Darfur from USAID.

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