Peace or justice in Darfur?

March 24, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Posted in International | 7 Comments

Should we prosecute murderous despots when they commit acts of genocide or crimes against humanity? At first glance, it’s a question so obvious, so morally clear-cut, that the only possible answer is an instant & unequivocal ‘yes’. So when the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on the grounds of mass murder, rape & torture, it was widely welcomed as a warning to other tyrants that their time will also come. Finally, they thought, the murdered & displaced people of Sudan will have justice.

Except, as reports this week have shown, the situation in Darfur has gotten markedly worse since the warrant was announced. In response to the news, three weeks ago al-Bashir expelled 16 foreign aid organisations from Sudan. What little aid remains is completely inadquate to meet needs, the number of those without proper access to food, medicine & clean water has skyrocketed, and NGOs report increased interference from security forces coupled with a surge in attacks directed at aid workers. Just last week, in defiance of international pleas to reconsider, Khartoum went a step further and announced that all aid agencies must leave the country within a year.

Before I continue, I’d just like to make one thing clear: the fault for expelling these aid groups and worsening the situation in Darfur lies squarely with the President of Sudan; the ICC isn’t to blame if al-Bashir only cements his inhumanity by cutting the supply lines to those who’ve already suffered too much. But in light of a situation that continues to deteriorate and without any new international initiatives on the horizon, I think it’s right to ask whether the decision by the court to pursue justice before peace has, actually been detrimental those suffering at the hands of the President and his henchmen.

That was certainly the argument put forward earlier this month by Sudan experts Julie Flint & Alex De Waal. They point out that Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor at the ICC, repeatedly hinted that he’d received significant amounts of incriminating evidence from relief organisations; an indiscretion which al-Bashir seized-upon to kick them out of the country. Furthermore, they claim that the prosecution is based on an argument so flimsy that it could well see him acquitted, and point out that rather than toppling the regime in Khartoum, the warrant is likely to cement its bloody intransigence. Finally, they warn that if this is to mark an abandonment of a diplomatic approach, then the people of Darfur will be forced to forfeit peace & security for a pursuit of justice which might never be fulfilled.

On the other side, there’s an equally compelling case from Eric Reeves, who argues convincingly that revoking the arrest warrant now would only embolded the regime in Khartoum and send a dangerous message beyond Sudan that the ICC’s judgements should only be upheld when it is morally and politically expedient. Reeves notes that that regime’s flagrant violation of international law and harrassment of aid workers predates what’s currently happening in the region and and concludes that, rather than seeing the ICC’s prosecution as an obstacle towards saving Darfur, it should underline the pressing need to take more concerted action – at the end of the day, only justice will bring peace.

Just the fact that there are strong arguments on either side of the warrant issue should show how the ICC’s well-meaning intervention has complicated matters, and it still remains to be seen whether President Obama’s new special envoy to the region will have the authority, wisdom & resources to navigate through a disaster which currently seems intractible. And meanwhile, amidst all this haggling over whether the pursuit of peace or justice is more important, the people of Darfur – frightened, starving, dead – get neither. We really need to get a move on.

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  1. Yes, but get a move on with what? A Chapter VII resolution in the Security Council deferring prosecution as per article 16 of the Rome Statute? Rapid execution of the warrant? Something else.

    It is not clear what you think of the strong arguments on each side when compared to each other, or how we might go about beginning to answer the question you aver it is right to ask.

  2. It is not clear what you think of the strong arguments on each side when compared to each other, or how we might go about beginning to answer the question you aver it is right to ask.

    Yeah, how about that. The short answer is that I just don’t know. I don’t believe a Chapter VII resolution would be appropriate; if, as De Waal believes, al-Bashir might not be successfully convicted anyway, then so be it, but it seems incredibly dangerous from the POV of international relations to defer prosecution.

    If pushed, my bottom line is that I’m not sure how much more mileage there is in the diplomatic option. By all means, give the Obama administration a few years to try to make it happen if they think they can, but al-Bashir’s record of intransigence suggests otherwise.

    This raises another set of questions: at what point do we declare the diplomatic option as dead and buried? And does the death of diplomacy necessarily mean we have the ability & the will to intervene militarily?

    I would dearly love to have answers to these things..

  3. Usually it is suggested that it is dangerous to proceed with prosecution, even if it is just, and that seems to be what your post suggests when discussing the impact on NGOs, much as it seems the logic behind requiring a Ch. VII resolution for such suspension. Why do you think it would be dangerous ‘from the point of view of international relations’ to defer?

    What would Bashir be emboldened to do that would threaten international peace and security in some more significant sense? It’s bad for the people of Darfur, and maybe of Chad, I guess. Do you fear it would lead to a crisis with the South? Or are you referring to some more indirect consequence of deferral?

    Sorry for pestering – Sudan’s back in the news it seems, given that Israel attacked her in January.

  4. Sorry for not replying to this sooner. The Israel-Sudan thing was about Iran, wasn’t it? I was going to read up about it, but kept forgetting.

    On prosecution and NGOs, the current position just seems perverse. If Bashir has been charged with crimes of that magnitude, he should be in no position to then kick the NGOs out; the international community should reply: “allow them back in, or you we’ll send several thousand pounds worth of munitions crashing down on your house”. At which point I become a neo-con, or something. It’s not feasible at the moment, I know, but this is not someone who should be able to dictate to the rest of the world.

    The reason I thought it might be dangerous if the prosecution was revoked for political rather than legal reasons is because it appears to send a message that our pursuit of those who commit crimes against humanity can be postponed if it’s not in our interests to see it through.

    Apologies for only giving this a few paragraphs, but my latest post almost killed me, and I have to prepare for the onslaught of another week at school.

    On a slightly related note, have you read the last Samantha Power book, or have you heard good things about it?

  5. Dear Sir
    We Sudanese look into the matter completely different than the western media see it. So the westerns may be taken by surprise when they know that this warrant gave popularity to Al-Bashir that did not occur in the history of Sudan!! Unfortunately the (media of Sadam’s WMD) will live on its imagination to discover after the “invasion” that it was all lies and nested stories far from reality.
    We believe the criminals are the rebels who are living in France and Israel, and refusing political negotiations because the financiers dislike that. I did not find any single demand presented by rebels to put down weapons, and the western media hiding this!!! What their cause? Whatever they want the government promised to give them, but they say we dislike to negotiate!! Instead the west incriminating the Sudan’s president, for hidden agenda. They are awaiting the moment of “we did not find WMD” after their agenda is executed!! But our people are extremely aware of it

  6. Thank you Mohammed Abbas Saad. The misinformed Western public and media will suddenly discover about the long propagated Darfur lies and above all will discover that the Government of Sudan is working for peace and stability with no intent to compromose either of the two to please people who are actin on misinformation about Sudan . And the Sudanese people are united on the matter like never before.

  7. Thank you Mohammed Abbas Saad. The misinformed Western public and media will suddenly discover about the long propagated Darfur lies and above all will discover that the Government of Sudan is working for peace and stability with no intent to compromise either of the two just to please people who are acting on misinformation about Sudan . And the Sudanese people are united on the matter like never before.


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