One year ago Thursday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, on charges of crimes against humanity. Now, on the first anniversary of the arrest warrant, fighting is raging in Darfur – the war-torn Sudanese province that is the source of much of the case against Mr. Bashir.
Yet in Khartoum, the African country’s capital, ubiquitous campaign posters hail Bashir’s run in April national elections. The president’s most prominent challenger, however, is censured for even mentioning the ICC’s indictment of the Sudanese leader.
Many observers of Darfur have retreated in recent months from calling the conflict in the province a “genocide,” as President George W. Bush did during his tenure. But human rights experts say Bashir still must be held accountable for the government’s legacy of intense violence in Darfur if the country is ever to know peace and justice.
“The fact is that peace and reconciliation and accountability are all intertwined, and you’re never going to have the first two without the third element,” says Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition in Washington.
Mr. Fowler just returned from three weeks in Sudan, including a visit to Darfur. The national elections, he says, are virtually meaningless for Darfur – even though they will be the country’s first multiparty voting in more than 20 years – because of unregistered, displaced populations and widespread insecurity.
“Darfur remains under a state of emergency, and the environment there is one of generalized insecurity, with a lot of people running around with guns,” Fowler says. “So it is not at all conducive to any meaningful elections.”
On Wednesday, the US State Department issued a statement saying it is “extremely concerned” about reports of new government offensives against rebels in Darfur. According to United Nations officials, the result has been a new spike in civilian deaths.
The United States says the renewed violence is “undermining the spirit of the peace process” between the government and rebel groups.
The government in Khartoum claims that any civilian deaths are the result of rebel attacks on the general population.
For more on the Darfur situation, click here.
In addition, violence is rising in the southern part of the country, despite a comprehensive peace agreement signed with southern rebel groups. US Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, on Thursday called on the international community to recommit to bringing peace and security and fair elections to Sudan. He warned that a return to generalized violence would have far-reaching consequences.
“A renewed civil war in Sudan would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences for the entire country and the wider region,” Senator Feingold said following passage of a Senate resolution urging heightened international attention to Sudan.
Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup. Now, he and his ruling party see success in the national elections as a way to give the government legitimacy – and obscure Bashir’s indictment as a war criminal, say experts like Fowler of Save Darfur. But with the cards apparently stacked in the ruling party’s favor, Fowler says, it’s hard to see how the elections will help resolve Sudan’s crisis.
“The problem is the playing field is so unlevel to begin with that simply holding an election does not mean the results will be credible,” Fowler says. He was in Khartoum when the official campaign began, and he saw a sea of Bashir posters.
“There are other presidential candidates,” he notes, including Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former prime minister who was ousted in the 1989 coup and who was censured Wednesday for speaking of Bashir’s ICC indictment. “But I never saw one poster for any of them. So that tells you something about the sheer dominance of the ruling party.”