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(New York) - The League of Arab States should call on Sudan to urgently readmit humanitarian aid groups to Darfur, Human Rights Watch said in a letter released today. Arab League foreign ministers will discuss the situation in Sudan when they meet on March 30, 2009, at their annual summit in Doha, Qatar.

On March 4, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in massive atrocities in Darfur. Within hours, the government ordered key relief organizations in Darfur to leave Sudan. These organizations were supplying food and water to 1.1 million people and medical care to 1.5 million. The government also forcibly closed three Sudanese aid and human rights organizations.

"The Sudanese leadership has sunk to a new low by ousting humanitarian organizations from Darfur in retaliation for the ICC's warrant against al-Bashir," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "The League of Arab States could help save thousands of lives by pressing Khartoum to reverse the expulsions."

It was unclear whether al-Bashir would attend the summit in Doha.  ICC member states have a legal obligation to arrest persons under ICC warrant. The UN Security Council has urged states that are not party to the court, such as Qatar, to cooperate with its work.

The Sudanese government has claimed that the remaining international and national organizations in Sudan will be able to cover gaps left by the organizations expelled. That is unlikely, especially for assistance that requires specialized skills such as medical care, Human Rights Watch said. The 13 international organizations expelled were responsible for 40 to 50 percent of the aid operation in north Sudan, including in Darfur.

Human Rights Watch called on the League of Arab States to send a mission to Sudan to investigate for itself the full impact of the expulsion of aid organizations.

Neither the League of Arab States nor the African Union has commented publicly on the expulsion of aid agencies. Both have raised suspension of the ICC prosecution of al-Bashir based on article 16 of the ICC's statute. This article allows the Security Council to defer an ICC investigation or prosecution for renewable 12-month periods under the council's Chapter VII authority to preserve international peace and security.

"The Arab League should not reward Sudan's behavior by supporting a suspension of al-Bashir's case, which would only encourage further abuses," said Dicker.

A deferral of the ICC's case against al-Bashir would risk fuelling more crimes and impunity for atrocities, Human Rights Watch said. Once a deferral took effect, the Sudanese government could threaten violence and offer empty promises to secure continued suspensions of al-Bashir's case. Human Rights Watch noted that the Arab League proposed that Sudan conduct national trials of serious crimes in the summer of 2008, but that no such trials have taken place.

Some nations have argued that the ICC's actions threaten peace efforts in the region. Human Rights Watch noted that the peace process in Darfur has long been stalled because of lack of political will to end the conflict, a factor unrelated to the ICC arrest warrants.

Some African and Arab governments have argued that the ICC is unfairly targeting African states. While the court's first four investigations are in Africa, three of these were voluntarily referred by African governments where the crimes were committed.  The fourth, Darfur, was referred by the UN Security Council.

The League of Arab States has called for an investigation of crimes committed in the recent Gaza conflict. Human Rights Watch has also called for an impartial, international investigation of crimes by all sides in the Gaza conflict as a first step toward ensuring justice. The Palestinian Authority has asked the ICC to investigate crimes committed in Gaza and the ICC is currently assessing whether it has the authority to investigate.

"The International Criminal Court is pro-victim, not anti-African or anti-Arab," said Dicker. "The pursuit of justice for serious international crimes wherever they are committed is vital."

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