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The decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Al-Bashir of Sudan by the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been the source of many intense discussions here in Sudan at the moment. This will be the first ICC arrest warrant ever issued for a sitting president. Since I arrived in Sudan a couple of weeks ago I have talked with many Sudanese people who are members of civil society and human rights organizations, most of whom are no fans of their president, but who have varying views on the indictment.
Some welcomed the idea of the arrest warrant, arguing that this is the only way to pursue justice for crimes committed by the Government of Sudan in Darfur, which are only a small portion of the human rights abuses that have been committed during Sudan’s wars under President Al-Bashir’s leadership since he seized power in 1989. They felt that the issue of an arrest warrant would be a concrete step towards ending impunity in Sudan, and a deterrent for potential human rights abusers around the world. They also saw the arrest warrant as an important tool for changing political relationships in Khartoum.
Others were less enthusiastic, arguing that the key issue for Sudan at the moment must be to complete all the steps required by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between north and south Sudan. The CPA ended the longest civil war in Africa and requires a number of key steps to be taken by 2011, including nation-wide elections, border demarcation, and a referendum on secession for south Sudan. An ICC indictment would be a distraction from that. They feared the confusion that could be caused by an ICC arrest warrant, pointing out that President Al-Bashir had signed the CPA and – if an indictment were to lead to him being deposed – no one knows what the attitude of a new leader would be. They preferred to deal with “the devil they know,” particularly since an arrest warrant does not mean an actual arrest.
Whichever side of the argument they took, they were universally anxious about the impact that the announcement of an indictment would have on Sudanese civil society in north Sudan, at least in the short-term. They feared a clampdown, a reasonable fear given recent incidents, such as the November 2008 arrest of three activists - two of whom were tortured - for alleged collaboration with the ICC. There was also nervousness about the potential impact of an indictment on international aid organizations, which have a very large presence in Sudan and are providing lifesaving services for people displaced within Darfur. They do not want these essential services to be disrupted by foreign aid workers evacuating if there is an aggressive response to an arrest warrant. Nor do they want the United Nations-African Union peacekeepers in Darfur to be forced to reduce their already insufficient presence.
In the midst of all of this anxiety, a group of Sudanese human rights activists took a bold step last week. They arranged a press conference and called on the government to urgently convene a national conference, to enable "all political forces within Sudan to come together to discuss the situation 'holistically' with the support of those regional and international stakeholders directly contributing to peace, justice and democracy." They called for "a comprehensive process for reconciliation and healing throughout Sudan." This brave initiative by Sudanese civil society groups should be recognized and supported.
No one knows what the fall-out from the ICC indictment may be, but the international community must ensure that nothing is allowed to de-rail the CPA, or to stop the humanitarian assistance that is keeping the Darfuri population alive during the current crisis.August 10, 2011 | Tagged as: Congress, South Sudan, Sudan, U.S. Administration, United Nations, Humanitarian Response, Protection & Security