Ms. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti
Chef de Cabinet
Executive Office of the Secretary-General
Re: Photos with President al-Bashir
Dear Ms. Viotti,
As you know, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2009 and 2010 for suspected genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Since then, the United Nations policy of avoiding non-essential contacts with individuals subject to arrest warrants has sent an important signal in support of justice for international crimes. It will also hopefully help lay the groundwork for al-Bashir’s arrest or surrender to the court.
With this in mind, we were deeply disappointed by the Secretary-General’s appearance in a series of group photos taken at the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa, which took place from February 10 to 11, 2019, in which the Secretary-General is standing next to al-Bashir.
It is difficult to see how posing next to al-Bashir for a photograph could qualify as an “essential” contact. The UN spokesman, asked about the photographs by a reporter, said the arrangement was “dictated by the hosts.” However true, this does not change the fact that by being photographed next to President al-Bashir, the Secretary-General was contravening the UN non-essential contacts policy. The commentary on the policy states that, “There should be no ceremonial meetings with such persons and....the same holds true of receptions, photo opportunities, attendance at national day celebrations and so on.” The Secretary-General should have simply taken himself out from the staged photograph.
Public appearances have important symbolic value for which al-Bashir is well aware. Regardless of the Secretary-General’s intent, the photograph is effectively a vote of confidence in a war crimes fugitive and undermines the UN’s credibility on crimes in Sudan and perceptions of the ICC. President al-Bashir and other critics of the ICC will doubtlessly take away this message. And al-Bashir can be expected to leverage his attendance at such events to promote his disregard for the ICC warrants.
Situations like this should be avoided in the future. When President al-Bashir is expected at an event the Secretary-General is also attending, the Secretary-General and his advisers should acquaint the hosts in advance with the UN policy. Staged photo opportunities cannot be justified, and precautions should be taken to limit the possibility of unstaged photos. At a minimum, the Secretary-General should use such opportunities to publicly call on al-Bashir to appear at the ICC to face the charges against him. This would help bring attention to the need for his surrender in the interests of justice and of his victims.
We are happy to discuss this letter with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General at your earliest convenience. Please do not hesitate to be in touch to discuss this matter further.
Bruno Stagno Ugarte
Deputy Executive Director, Advocacy
Human Rights Watch