Monday’s request by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for an arrest warrant charging President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan with crimes against humanity and genocide is generating enormous debate and controversy. Diplomats express increasing concern that the arrest warrant will endanger the work of humanitarian organizations and peacekeepers in Sudan.
But the actor holding the key to these issues is Sudan’s government. It is up to the international community – beginning with the UN Security Council – to ensure that Sudan complies with international law by being prepared to hold the government accountable for retaliatory attacks against peacekeepers and aid workers.
Official spokespersons for President Bashir’s government and the ruling National Congress Party took a threatening stance even before the prosecutor’s formal request. They accuse chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of serving not justice but Western political interests. They reject the court’s jurisdiction and, with no hint of irony, gravely warn that arrest warrants will destroy the chances of peace in Darfur. But there is no peace in Darfur.
Sudanese officials, including President Bashir, have cited their commitment to a peacekeeping force deployed in Darfur by the United Nations and the African Union, and to protecting humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. They are quick to say that that the ICC’s action threatens these commitments.
The international community should stand ready to respond to any retaliatory measures against international peacekeeping or humanitarian operations. International law requires full, safe and unhindered access of relief personnel to all those in need in Darfur as well as the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Deliberate targeting of peacekeepers or humanitarian workers is a war crime.
Rather than back away from its commitment to ending impunity for horrific international crimes, the Security Council should ensure Sudan’s government fulfills its obligations to provide unhindered access to humanitarian workers and peacekeepers to those in need. If Sudan conducts reprisal attacks against UN or relief personnel because of Monday’s announcement, the Security Council should hold accountable those responsible for the violence. UN member states with information that could help identify perpetrators should share it with UN investigators.
For more than a year Khartoum has thumbed its nose at the Security Council. It was the Security Council that in 2005 asked the ICC’s prosecutor to investigate the situation in Darfur.
In 2007, the court issued arrest warrants for two Sudanese for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Last September, during the UN Secretary-General’s visit to Sudan, the government showed its contempt for international law by appointing one of the two to co-chair a committee designated to hear human rights complaints. More recently, instead of turning over the fugitives, officials in Khartoum called for the arrest of the ICC prosecutor.
The Security Council must not allow itself to be blackmailed. Moreno-Ocampo last month told the Council of repeated large-scale attacks in the Darfur region against civilians, systematic rapes, the usurpation of land and the disintegration of entire communities. He said he was likely to pursue charges against government authorities “at the highest level” as the crimes clearly indicated a plan based on mobilisation of the entire state apparatus. The Council responded by unanimously calling on Sudan’s government to cooperate with the court.
With the request for warrants against Bashir, the stakes have gone up. The Council, however, must stand firm. If the government of Sudan is allowed to use threats of additional violence and further crimes to defer or even dispel the possibility of justice, the victims of Darfur are ultimately betrayed.
Suliman Baldo is Africa Director at the International Center for Transitional Justice; Sara Darehshori is Senior Counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch