For almost two decades, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has waged foul wars on ethnic groups within his country that happened to live on oil- or mineral-rich land. Today, the international community is finally close to holding him accountable. Though it could make for a rocky transition, it is the key to peace.
Even before Darfur, aerial bombing, murder, and rape seemed to be his government's tools for settling scores with the mainly African Christians of southern Sudan. In that 23-year war for resource control, just under 2 million people died as a result of mass violence.
In 2005, the US brokered a peace deal that divided control of the oil fields. But it did not address the crimes committed. And by the time it was signed, Mr. Bashir was back to the same, in Darfur.
This summer, however, things changed. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, requested an arrest warrant against Bashir on suspicion of genocide. A flood of worst-case predictions followed. A fear that the situation will worsen has increased. And so have worries about chances for any meaningful peace process.
The pressure is now mounting on the United Nations Security Council to defer the ICC proceedings – as soon as this month – before the court judges decide the fate of the warrant request. This political emergency brake was meant to be used only when the interests of justice and peace collide.
Bashir is clearly doing his best to convince the world that the call for his arrest will indeed collide with peace in Darfur. He recently sent a diplomatic mission to Security Council member states, promising renewed peace and possible deals. Back home, his troops attacked Darfur's largest refugee camp, killing dozens.
In fact, the most serious threat to peace and security in Sudan is Bashir himself. His regime has the power to make the Darfurians' life worse yet. It can also endanger international peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, upset the fragile peace in the south, and continue to destabilize its neighbor, Chad. In the past, Khartoum has often used its power in unsettling ways – and many believe that it would not hesitate to do it again.
But is pursuing the course of justice the right answer to this threat? Within the Security Council, divisions run deep on that question. About half of member states support a deferral, and many others still sit carefully on the fence.
In order to credibly pull the brake on justice, the Security Council would have to promptly ensure real peace in Darfur, including a military force strong enough to back it up. Such a deal would have to offer the victims immediate security and relief. It would need to tackle the division of power and natural resources in order to create sustainable peace. And this time it would also have to address past crimes and guarantee that the country's rulers won't resort to genocide again.
It is doubtful whether Bashir would be ready to accept such terms. But anything less ambitious would undermine not only the ICC, but also the credibility of the member states that would allow it.
A better option is to simply let the ICC do its job – while ensuring that the innocent in Darfur do not suffer the consequences of the regime's reaction to such a principled stand.
As the third sitting head of state to be suspected or indicted for war crimes, Bashir is the real watershed in the history of international justice. Allowing the court to decide on the issue of his criminal responsibility would mean that the two previous cases – Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia's President Charles Taylor – were not oddities, but part of a genuine paradigm shift.
It would make international justice a player and introduce new checks and balances into the unruly world of international relations. Equally important, this shift would send a clear message that genocide has become unforgivable.
There might also be some real political benefits in letting justice run its course. An international arrest warrant could erode Bashir's authority at home and abroad and speed up his political demise. The war crimes indictment surely hastened Mr. Milosevic's fall from power: It made him useless as an international negotiator.
There is obviously no guarantee that in the case of Bashir the consequences would be as quick and beneficial. Sudan is a large, oil-rich state with needy and influential friends. But an arrest warrant would surely make some of his allies wonder about the wisdom of doing business with a fugitive.
And, yes, the prospect of an eventual change at the top of such a volatile country may seem unsettling. But the only stability under Bashir that Sudan has known is the one of repression, recurring armed conflict, and mass murder. The Sudanese president may have been moderately cooperative on the war on terror, but the price has been allowing him to terrorize others. His country and the millions of its war-tired citizens deserve a different future. And the US deserves a better ally.
Ana Uzelac is an independent Hague-based expert specializing on issues of postconflict justice.