By Stephanie McCrummen and Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
NAIROBI, July 14 -- The Sudanese government defiantly rejected International Criminal Court charges of genocide against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Monday, vowing to fight them "legally and diplomatically" instead of retaliating against U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers or residents of Darfur, a reaction that is feared in the volatile, western Sudanese region.
Sudan's U.N. envoy, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, called the court's charges a "catastrophe" that will have "disastrous consequences" on peace efforts in Darfur, where a brutal government campaign against rebels and civilians has left as many as 450,000 people dead from disease and violence, and nearly half the region's population displaced. The Sudanese government says those figures are exaggerated.
"We will never cooperate with the ICC," Mohamad said, noting that Sudan, like the United States, is not a signatory to the court's founding treaty. "This is a criminal move that will torpedo the march forward" of the country.
But the charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity leveled at Bashir -- the court's first charges against a sitting head of state -- brought cautious applause from human rights activists and outright celebration in some of the sprawling, straw-hut camps found across Darfur, where more than 2.5 million displaced people now live at the mercy of foreign aid.
"They are dancing and chanting and thanking God and praying," said Salih Mahmoud Osman, an opposition member of Sudan's parliament and human rights activist from Darfur, who received cellphone calls from the camps all day Monday. "It is maybe early to evaluate the repercussions of the ICC decision, but . . . there will never, never be peace in Darfur without justice."
The United Nations, in the meantime, was temporarily evacuating about 200 workers from Darfur to Uganda as a precaution against retaliatory attacks, although one official played down the threat. "This probably won't be a massive relocation, because the state of the situation on the ground is pretty good. The interactions with the Sudanese government over the past 24 hours have been fairly good," the official said.
The court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, formally requested an arrest warrant for Bashir on Monday. In a presentation to a three-judge panel at The Hague, he offered evidence that Bashir "masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part" three ethnic groups -- the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa -- that the government considered constituents of rebels who took up arms in 2003.
"Al Bashir failed to defeat the rebels, so he went after the people," read a statement from Ocampo. "His alibi was 'counterinsurgency.' His intent was genocide. . . . He has mobilized the entire state apparatus, including the armed forces, the intelligence services, the diplomatic and public information bureaucracies, and the justice system" to subject the targeted groups "to conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction."
The widely anticipated charges have sparked spirited debate among diplomats and human rights activists over whether they will help pressure the Sudanese government into reaching a peaceful settlement in Darfur, or derail the process altogether and lead to more violence.
Sudanese officials have sent mixed signals on how they will respond. On one hand, they stressed Monday they would react in "legal" ways, for instance meeting with friendly members on the U.N. Security Council -- China and Russia -- to argue for overturning the court's decision or delaying its implementation, as the council is empowered to do under the court's statute.
Some Sudanese say Bashir's ruling party is more internally divided on how to handle the charges than its public statements indicate. "There is a line of thinking inside the government in Khartoum calling for changing the course from always saying 'no, no, no' to the international community," said Osman, the opposition member of parliament, suggesting that the charges might help force a settlement on Darfur. "There is a justification to talk now more than ever."
On the other hand, Sudanese officials -- who often react brutally when challenged -- this past weekend warned that the charges would lead to more "bloodletting" in Darfur. The government has moved several fighter jets into the region.
When the International Criminal Court charged two other top Sudanese officials with war crimes last year, the government officially paid no attention. It later promoted one of the officials to head its Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.
John Prendergast, a leading activist on Darfur, called the government's pledge Monday to react legally "a smoke screen." He and others have noted that last week's attack on a peacekeeping convoy by an estimated 200 fighters was likely carried out by pro-government militias. The ambush was probably "their first answer" to Ocampo, said Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, which campaigns to end crimes against humanity. "Watch what they do, not what they say."
At the same time, he and others said, the charges against Bashir could help pressure the Sudanese government into a meaningful settlement to the Darfur conflict. The United States and other members of the Security Council could support a vote to suspend the charges in return for cooperation on Darfur, for instance.
It will take about three months for the court's judges to decide whether to accept Ocampo's charges and issue an arrest warrant for Bashir. The judges have never turned down such a request.
"If the judges confirm it, the international community has to have a strategy," Ocampo said, adding that if the situation in Darfur deteriorates, the court will not be to blame. "The criminals are the problem, not the prosecutor. Bashir is the problem now, not the prosecutor. We are finally at the stage at which Bashir has to explain, not us."
Boustany reported from Washington. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.