The Hunt for al-Bashir

by Sibjeet Mahapatra:

Imagine a world where a man wanted for murder can be president of a nation of 42 million people.

“Now imagine a world where that man is wanted in not one but 110 countries, for not only the crime of murder but also those of rape, extermination, forcible transfer, pillaging, and torture, and not only remains in high office but also plans to run for another term in 2010,” said Josh Rubenstein, a 30-year veteran of human rights policy and regional director for Amnesty International USA.

Welcome to the world of Omar al-Bashir.

On March 4, 2009, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, head prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), issued an indictment against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan. Al-Bashir was charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes in the region of Darfur. The warrant placed square blame for the conflict in Darfur, in which an estimated 300,000 people have been killed, on al-Bashir and his administration. Al-Bashir is the first head of state to be indicted by the ICC while in office. The warrant has been lauded by the international human rights community and supported by NATO and the European Union.

The indictment has its opponents, too. The day the warrant was made public, the permanent representative of Sudan to the United Nations lambasted the ICC in the tiny, blue-walled press room at U.N. Headquarters. “This verdict does not deserve the ink used to print it,” the ambassador said, pounding his podium. “The message that the ICC has sent to the entire world is that it is a tool of imperialism and double standards.”

Thousands of Sudanese marched in the capital Khartoum following the announcement of the warrant, rallying in support of al-Bashir. “Some Sudanese don’t agree with al-Bashir’s politics, but at the end of the day, they’re nationalists, and they will support their leader against what they perceive as a patronizing and pro-Western system of justice, especially in the northern part of the country,” said Beatrice Mategwa, a journalist with the U.N. who has spent four out of the past five years in Sudan. Darfur, where most of the violence has occurred, lies far to the west of Khartoum.

Most of the member states of the Arab League and the African Union (AU) joined the Sudanese government in condemning the warrant as an expression of western hegemony. China and Russia have also voiced their support for al-Bashir. An official message on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website described the warrant as a “disruption” to the Sudanese peace process. (Notably, the Chinese consume around two-thirds of Sudan’s annual oil production.)

Days after the release of the warrant, the Sudanese government expelled most of the non-political international aid organizations working in Darfur, including Oxfam International, Médecins sans Frontières, and Mercy Corps. Al-Bashir accused the organizations of being “spies” and “thieves,” though he made sure to seize their assets before kicking them out of Sudan.

Almost a year after the warrant was issued, Omar al-Bashir remains comfortably in power in Sudan. In the months following the indictment, al-Bashir has not curbed his international travel, travelling to conferences in Qatar, Egypt, Libya, and Eritrea.

Does this mean that the ICC — an institution founded with the goal of ending impunity for even the most powerful perpetrators of atrocities — is doomed to fail?

“Absolutely not,” Rubenstein said firmly. “Sure, we haven’t gotten al-Bashir yet — we always knew he wouldn’t come easily.” But even so, “the fact that the international community has gotten to the point where it can hold a sitting head of state accountable for human rights violations marks an enormous milestone.”

For now, al-Bashir is free and in power, and he will seek to extend his reign in the 2010 Sudanese elections. The politics of race, religion, and oil make it unlikely that he will face trial at The Hague any time soon. But the ICC has sent Omar al-Bashir a message: Watch out. When you leave your presidential com•pound, when you travel outside of Sudan for medical treatment, and when you attend conferences in other nations, you are stepping into a world in which you are wanted for war crimes. Your days are numbered. We know your game, and we will bring you to justice.

Sibjeet Mahapatra ’13 is in Silliman College.