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Why Arab leaders embrace Sudan's indicted president

At the Arab League summit Monday, the UN secretary general condemned Sudan's expulsion of humanitarian aid groups in response to the ICC arrest warrant for Bashir.

By Liam StackCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2009

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (c.) defied an international arrest warrant by attending the opening session of the Arab Summit in Doha, Qatar, on Monday.

Hassan Ammar/AP



On Sunday Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir strode off his airplane and onto a red carpet at the airport in Doha, greeted with a kiss by the tiny kingdom's emir as he arrived for a two-day Arab League summit dedicated to strengthening Arab unity.

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Mr. Bashir has been a busy man since his indictment for seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 4. His visit to Qatar's capital is the fourth time in two weeks that he has defied the standing international warrant for his arrest, coming after visits to the neighboring countries of Eritrea, Egypt, and Libya.

Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC, but nonetheless has enjoyed an outpouring of support from Arab and African leaders. Their hostile reaction to the indictment of one of their own, say diplomats and analysts, is driven by a combination of concern for the indictment's consequences for Sudan's stability, resentment of the selective precedent it sets, and worries about national sovereignty.

"The fact that other countries, including Israel, have not been subjected to this kind of decision is a natural source of opposition for most – but not all – Arab countries," says Khalid Medani, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal. For the Arab League and the African Union, the issue is first and foremost about protecting their sovereignty.

"The issue of national sovereignty is a key principle of post-colonial states in general," he says

At the opening of the summit Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon sharply condemned Sudan's expulsion of humanitarian aid groups in response to the arrest warrant, and said that "we must all be committed" to "peace and justice," according to the Associated Press. The UN Security Council asked the ICC to begin the investigation into alleged war crimes in Darfur that led to Bashir's indictment.

The official line in Arab capitals is that the indictment endangers the stability of Sudan by undermining the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan, which is of particular interest to Egypt. Gulf states like Qatar also worry that the indictment will scuttle their efforts to broker a peace deal in Darfur, in which they have invested much political capital. Recent talks between Khartoum and Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement, also held in Qatar, ended without a deal.

Arab and African leaders focused on self-preservation

The indictment comes six years into a conflict that former US President George W. Bush called "genocide." It has killed up to 300,000 people and left 2.5 million homeless since 2003.

The 13 aid groups expelled by Bashir hours after the indictment was issued provided food and medicine to more than a million people and were responsible for as much as 50 percent of humanitarian aid in Darfur, says Human Rights Watch.

Both HRW and the Arab Coalition for Darfur called on the Arab League to push for their readmission to the country, although it is unclear if Arab leaders are interested in championing that cause. Instead, their focus appears to be on self-preservation.