By Stephanie McCrummen and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 5, 2009
NAIROBI, March 4 -- Reacting swiftly to the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the government of Sudan on Wednesday expelled at least 10 foreign aid groups that provide food, water, medical care and other assistance to more than a million displaced people in the western Darfur region, according to U.N. officials and aid workers.
The groups include Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, CARE International and others that collectively handle 60 percent of humanitarian assistance in Darfur, where the largest relief effort in the world has reversed a dangerous rise in the level of malnutrition and disease among people stranded in refugee camps. Some groups were given 24 hours to leave; others were told that the safety of their staffs could no longer be guaranteed.
"It's alarming," said a U.N. official in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, who was not authorized to speak publicly because of security concerns. "The humanitarian impact of this is massive."
The expulsions were part of the Sudanese government's dismissive response to charges that Bashir used the instruments of state to direct the mass murder of tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians in Darfur during the past six years. He is the first sitting head of state to be charged by the Hague-based court.
On Tuesday, Bashir said the court could "eat" its arrest warrant. Within minutes of its announcement Wednesday, hundreds of people poured into the streets of Khartoum in a protest that was probably orchestrated by a government that exerts tight control over the city.
The Khartoum offices of several Sudanese human rights groups were raided, and Bashir -- who enjoys support from many African leaders concerned about their own rights records -- promised a "million man march" Thursday.
"Indeed, today is a day of national anger and national outrage," said Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, calling the ICC decision a "criminal act." He said: "It is an affront and an insult to the nation, and it is meant to be a recipe for disaster and disunity and instability in the country."
Some political insiders in Khartoum with no great love for Bashir opposed the court's decision, noting that Sudan was simply following the lead of the United States, which is not a signatory to the court.
"The American government said it was not ready to send any American citizen to the court," said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer in Khartoum. "So we are just following the steps of our beloved Americans."
With its decision, the three-judge panel upheld a request by the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to charge Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The judges ruled that there was not enough evidence to charge Bashir with directing a genocide but noted that the genocide charge could be pursued later if Ocampo obtained new evidence.
The Sudanese government never allowed the prosecutor inside Darfur to investigate.
At a news conference at the court's headquarters in the Netherlands, spokeswoman Laurence Blairon said Bashir fully controlled the country's security apparatus as it carried out a brutal counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels who took up arms against Sudan's leaders in February 2003, citing a history of discrimination against the region's black African tribes.
The court charged Bashir with crimes that included "murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring" large numbers of civilians and looting their property, Blairon said. Bashir's status as a sitting president would not shield him from criminal responsibility, "nor does it grant him immunity," she said.
Some experts say that as many as 450,000 people have died in Darfur, and the government campaign has essentially rearranged the demographics of the vast region, displacing nearly half the population.
The statute that created the court requires signatory nations to execute the warrant if Bashir travels to their countries, but non-signatory states are also allowed to do so. The United Nations has said the thousands of peacekeepers in Sudan would not execute the warrant.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, said in a statement Wednesday that the United States "supports the ICC's actions to hold accountable those responsible for the heinous crimes in Darfur." Rice said nothing about executing the warrant.
The ICC's decision has opened a fierce debate over whether it will help pressure Bashir into resolving the conflict, or possibly spark consequences that will make a solution more difficult.
An array of human rights groups and activists praised the ICC's decision, saying that it offers a welcome measure of justice for long-suffering Darfurians and a golden opportunity for the Obama administration to pursue peace in Sudan. The U.N. Security Council can vote to defer the ICC's decision, which many observers say could be used as a carrot to push Bashir into a deal.
The decision "is a game-changing moment," said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition. "The international community must capitalize on the pressure this decision has brought to bear on Bashir and his regime -- and must ensure Khartoum can no longer continue with business as usual."
Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and program director at the Social Science Research Council, was more skeptical, saying the ICC's decision opened up "completely unknown territory."
Some speculate that the decision leaves Bashir vulnerable to internal political machinations among those who want his job, including figures considered more brutal.
"It's a gamble," de Waal said of the decision. At a minimum, he said, Sudanese politics "will get paralyzed or slow down, and that does not bode well for peace."
Perhaps those most worried about the decision are in Southern Sudan, the semiautonomous region whose 21-year war with the north was at least as brutal as the conflict in Darfur. A fragile 2005 peace agreement involving power and revenue sharing is considered a model for any deal on Darfur. Southern leaders have been divided over whether to fully support the ICC decision or support Bashir in the hope of shoring up their peace deal.
In an interview Tuesday night, Salva Kiir Mayardit, a Southerner who became Sudan's vice president under the peace deal, was cautious.
"We want to work with our partners in peace," he said. "That does not mean support [of the ICC decision,] and that does not mean condemnation. We want a solution to the conflict that brought about the ICC decision in the first place."
Though the government provided little explanation for why the groups were asked to leave, several aid workers said they were accused of providing evidence to the court.
The expulsions mean that clinics will close, water pumps will go unrepaired, sanitation will degenerate -- bringing cholera and other diseases -- and, in some cases, food rations will not be distributed.
Doctors Without Borders, known for its cautious assessments, said an outbreak of meningitis in one of Darfur's largest and most volatile camps could cause many deaths if people are not treated.
"People have nothing there," said a worker with the group, whose Dutch division has been expelled. The meningitis outbreak alone could lead to "thousands of deaths," she said.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.