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.

Hassan Ammar/AP
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.

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.

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.

In a region plagued by human right violations, no Arab or African leader wants to set the precedent of one of their own being indicted, says Sondra Hale, a UCLA professor who has studied Sudan and Eritrea for 47 years.

"With regard to Eritrea, it has been one of the most independent and isolated of all African countries and the idea of any international body imposing a law on them would be anathema," she says, "Eritrean leaders are also vulnerable to charges of violations of human rights for jailing and persecuting the opposition for many years."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters in Doha on Sunday that "what is required from all of us is to stand with our brothers in Sudan and its leadership in order to prevent dangers that affect our collective security." On the same day, Arab League diplomats endorsed the text of a resolution rejecting the ICC indictment.

"The leaders reject attempts to politicize the principles of international justice and using them to undermine the sovereignty, unity and stability, of Sudan," said the draft resolution, according to The Associated Press.

Meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 5, the African Union also affirmed a resolution "expressing deep concern" over the indictment, saying it would hinder efforts to negotiate peace in Darfur. The AU called on the UN to "assume its responsibilities by deferring the process initiated by the ICC."

The ICC can defer a case at the request of the Security Council, though it has never done so. The court relies on its member states to make arrests. None of the states Bashir has visited are party to the court's founding treaty, making it unlikely that he will be put on trial.

Sudan appears confident that the support of its neighbors will discourage the international community from pursuing its prosecution of Bashir.

"The allegations at the ICC have nothing to do with reality, and we will use our friends in the United Nations to stop them," says Abdel Malik Al Naiem, spokesman for the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo

He says that Sudan and Egypt "will be going forward hand-in-hand" on that effort.

Sudan's stability a key issue

But Arab states have little particular interest in Omar al-Bashir per se, says Hani Raslan, the head of the Sudan Studies Unit at the Ahram Center, a Cairo think tank. Rather, they are concerned that the indictment could threaten the viability of Sudan as a state.

"Countries like Egypt and other Arab countries support Sudan on the question of the ICC because it is very dangerous to the state of Sudan itself, not just the regime of President al-Bashir," he says, "Now that there is peace between the North and the South, Egypt does not want to see a return to a larger civil war."

Ms. Hale also says that the recent revelation that Israel launched air strikes in Sudan in January and February against smugglers bringing Iranian weapons from the Horn of Africa to Gaza is "a further complicating factor."

It allows "the Sudanese state and its supporters to claim conspiracy to undermine the sovereign state," she says.

For some, the air strikes also highlight the very Sudanese instability that they fear spreading.

"These shipments are happening through Sudanese territory because the role of the central government is very weak outside of Khartoum and Omdurman," says Nabil Abdel Fattah, Assistant Director of the Ahram Center. "This is a historical fact of the so-called modern state of Sudan."

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