“When will Bashir be tried?” Darfurian refugees on the Chad border asked me time and again last summer. “We are here because of Bashir,” they said.
Last July, I went to Chad to look into how the International Criminal Court, which has a field office in Abeche and works with refugees in the camps, is performing on the ground. As part of my assessment, I interviewed dozens of refugees.
Considering the hardships the refugees faced daily, I was not sure how they would feel talking about a topic as abstract as accountability in an international forum.
Thus I was surprised when their reactions to my questions were positive, with even a hint of impatience because the ICC prosecutor had not yet gone after the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. A Sudanese official and a rebel leader had been indicted by The Hague-based court but, to the refugees, that didn’t go far enough. The chain of command was clear.
On Monday, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC chief prosecutor, sought a warrant from the court for the arrest of Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It may take months for the court to rule, but Moreno-Ocampo’s actions will, no doubt, be greeted with joy in the camps.
Yet some commentators outside Darfur have argued that this “moment of jubilation” can only be a symbolic victory for the long-suffering people of that region. They contend that should the prosecution of top officials -- however terrible their crimes -- go forward, it will interfere with prospects for peace and security.
Sudan’s history makes a strong case for the opposite conclusion: The persistent lack of accountability has instead undermined the prospects for peace and stability. There has been little peace to keep.
Since taking power in a military coup in 1989, the leadership of the ruling party in Sudan has conducted brutal campaigns to combat rebel groups in several regions, forcibly displacing millions of Sudanese and killing up to 2 million people in southern Sudan alone, all with impunity.
The strategy of burning and looting villages and arming tribal militias to kill and steal from ethnic groups deemed supportive of rebels was initiated in the south, and for years, much of the international community stood by silently. Not one U.N. Security Council resolution condemned the attacks throughout the 1990s.
International negotiators, understandably anxious to secure peace, were silent on the issue of accountability for fear of its effect on the peace talks; perpetrators of the most serious crimes were never held to account. When the Darfur insurgency began in 2003 -- during negotiations between the north and south -- the Sudanese government returned to the same old tactics, committing widespread attacks on civilians in Darfur.
Today, it remains true that most of the international attempts to persuade Khartoum to end the violence in Darfur have resulted in little cooperation. In particular, relative silence on accountability and justice issues in Sudan has yielded extremely limited concessions from Sudan.
When the ICC issued the first two warrants against suspects in Darfur, the Security Council did not speak out against Khartoum’s blatant refusal to carry out the warrants. (Not only did Khartoum refuse to turn over those who were indicted, but one was promoted within the government.) Apparently the Security Council hoped that downplaying justice would help in the deployment of peacekeeping forces or compliance with the peace agreement. However, despite a resolution authorizing a U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, Khartoum continues to obstruct full deployment. Few bases have been established, and the forces are at barely a third of their authorized capacity.
Now there is concern that a Bashir warrant from the ICC will in particular threaten humanitarian efforts in Darfur. Last week, seven U.N. peacekeepers were killed by attackers whose identities are still uncertain.
But with or without the Bashir warrant, the government of Sudan remains obligated under international law to ensure the full, safe and unhindered access of relief personnel to all those in need in Darfur. Attacks against personnel involved in a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission constitute war crimes. It is up to the Security Council to take measures, such as targeted sanctions, to ensure that Sudan abides by its obligations under international law.
In June, the Security Council issued a unanimous statement calling for Sudan to cooperate with the ICC. That reaffirmed the council’s historic commitment to bring justice to victims in Darfur. The international community should now stand with the ICC as it considers warrants against Bashir, which is a further step toward meaningful accountability for the massive crimes in the region.
As one Darfur refugee put it to me, “There is no justice in Sudan. If there was, we would not be here.”
Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, interviewed refugees in Chad last July as part of her work assessing the International Criminal Court.