Sudan’s Bashir tries to stall Darfur genocide ruling

The International Criminal Court said Monday that it will decide on March 4 whether to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir for charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.

Mohamed Nureldin/Reuters
Support from allies: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (second from right) talked with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (l.), upon his arrival to Khartoum, Sudan, on Saturday.

With an arrest warrant looming over him for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is on a last-minute bid to win friends and influence people.

In a Sunday visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – one of the strongest voices in the Arab League – Mr. Bashir explained his concerns about what would happen to his country if the International Criminal Court (ICC) follows through on the chief prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant for Bashir.

The ICC said Monday that it will announce whether to issue the warrant on March 4. Bashir’s backers argue that the ICC’s pursuit of justice is undermining his leadership and the ability to strike a peace deal with Darfur rebels. While Bashir has racked up a broad range of supporters – from members of the African Union to the Arab League to China – his time seems to be running out.

“There is no exit,” says John Prendergast, co-chair of the Enough Project, an Africa advocacy group in Washington. "Of course Bashir is seeking all kinds of political support in order to make the ICC supporters uncomfortable. But at the end of the day, if enough countries downgrade relations [with Sudan] over time because the head of state is an indicted war criminal, the Sudanese ruling party will be thinking very hard about how long it will rally around its leader."

Those of Bashir's party who don't want to see Sudan's legitimacy shrink further "will work for a peaceful change of leadership," Mr. Prendergast adds.

Milosevic, Taylor ... and Bashir?

Like Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian President Charles Taylor before him, Sudan's president is coming up against a relatively new international court system designed to ensure that national leaders and others cannot commit human rights crimes with impunity.

Bashir has a few more tools at his disposal than Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Taylor had, of course, since he is still the sitting leader of his country. But while Bashir may actually have the numbers on his side, with much of the developing world voicing concern that the ICC has overreached its mandate, the ICC is showing no signs of relenting.

"The only alternative the judge can look at is to stagger or to postpone the decision to issue an arrest warrant," says Godfrey Musila, a legal expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, South Africa (formerly known as Pretoria). "What Sudan is doing is trying to get enough diplomatic voices on its side, but the idea is not to affect the decision of whether to issue an arrest warrant or not, but when to do it."

Coming just a week after the Khartoum government signed a "confidence-building" agreement to start talks with the key Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, at a meeting in Doha, Qatar, Bashir's diplomatic roadshow is a clear last-minute dash to stall the inevitable.

Critics of the ICC, and supporters of Bashir – and these two groups are not synonymous – argue that attempting to arrest Bashir now, in an election year, when relations with the former secessionist south and the rebellious Darfur region to the west, might simply make things worse for the Sudanese people. A Comprehensive Peace Accord between Khartoum and South Sudan could crumble if Bashir is removed from leadership.

The Darfur conflict – which has entered its sixth year with no end in sight – might be given new energy if rebels feel that there is no point in negotiating with a weak Khartoum government. A French aid organization in Darfur said Monday that two of its Sudanese staff were killed in a bandit attack.

Egypt's concern: regional stability

Opponents of the Bashir regime see the possible indictment as a victory against genocide. Any warrant is likely based on the Sudanese president's role in the deaths of more than 300,000 and the displacement of more than 2.5 million in Sudan's Darfur region.

But Egypt – which already hosts millions of Sudanese refugees in its borders – sees it as a potentially disastrous Pandora's box and a profound threat to regional stability.

"Egypt supports Sudan on the question of the ICC because it is very dangerous to the state of Sudan itself, not just to the regime of President Bashir," says Dr. Hani Raslan, an analyst at Cairo's Ahram Center and an expert in Sudan-Egypt relations. "Now that there is peace between the North and the South, Egypt does not want to see a return to a larger civil war."

Mr. Raslan says that Sudan is "in a very weak position in the region" and feels surrounded by threats, such as Chad, Eritrea, and Israel. "Everyone has an agenda against Sudan," he says.

While Mr. Mubarak is unwilling to come out too strongly in favor of a man many see as a war criminal, his government has nevertheless made it clear that it is strongly opposed to a possible indictment.

The Egyptian government has objected to what it calls the "politicization and selectivity" of the ICC allegations, in the words of presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad.

Speaking to reporters before Sunday's meeting, Mr. Awwad warned that an indictment could lead to wider instability.

"The repercussions will be dangerous in Darfur, in particular, and in Sudan in general, and on the UN-AU peacekeeping forces," said Awwad, according to the Associated Press.

Egypt and Sudan have a long history of mutual entanglement. From 1899 to 1956, Sudan was jointly administered as a condominium of Egypt and the British Empire. Cairo remains an important ally for Sudan. It is a traditional leader of the Arab world, and as a strategic ally of Europe and the United States, it is an important bridge to the West.

"Egypt is important for Sudan," says Abdel Malik al-Naiem, spokesman for the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo. "On the issue of the ICC indictment, Mubarak has made a very good effort for us over the last two weeks, especially by telling [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy that Egypt will support Sudan in this matter."

Stability concerns a canard?

Prendergast and other observers argue that Bashir's day in court is just a matter of time, and that it will actually bring more stability to the region, not less.

"This will provide a major opening for peace efforts on Darfur, as the only real path to a deferred ICC case is if the government secures a peace deal with Darfur's rebels," says Prendergast.

"All the diplomatic sound and fury emanating from Bashir's palace these days signifies nothing," he says. "The arrest warrant will have severe repercussions. If he laughs in the face of international justice, he will join the likes of Milosevic and Taylor who similarly laughed at their indictments but who ultimately ended up in custody."

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