Will an ICC Arrest Warrant for Sudan's President Help Darfuris?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

THE ISSUING of an arrest warrant yesterday for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court prompted a predictable blizzard of celebratory statements from human rights groups and other Western advocates for the war-torn region of Darfur. What is interesting is that many of those same groups acknowledged that the war crimes charges are unlikely to shake the dictator's hold on power and might lead to a worsening of the situation in Sudan.

"The more likely outcome is that [Mr. Bashir] will remain in power with no prospect of ending up before the ICC anytime soon," said the International Crisis Group, adding that the regime might react by attacking U.N. relief personnel or refugee camps in Darfur, declaring a state of emergency or cracking down on its political opposition. Physicians for Human Rights anticipates "a likely spike in violent attacks."

It is easy to feel some moral satisfaction when one of the world's most brutal rulers is designated a fugitive from justice. Perhaps the warrant will send a shiver down the spine of Syria's Bashar al-Assad or Burma's Than Shwe. The ICC itself could use a morale boost: Six years after its creation, it has yet to convict a single war criminal and has put only one on trial. But it is hard to imagine much cheer in the camps of Darfur, where a U.N. peacekeeping force has failed to muster adequate troops or even helicopters and has not been able to provide security; or in southern Sudan, where a fragile peace between the Bashir regime and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement is at the point of collapse.

Some advocates appear to hope that the arrest warrant will spur Western governments to make a larger commitment to ending the violence in Sudan -- by supplying troops or helicopters, seeking new U.N. sanctions against the regime, or setting up a no-fly zone over Darfur. A review is underway in the Obama administration, and a special envoy probably will be named. But the factors that deterred President Bush from intervening in Darfur haven't much changed. China is ready to block any forceful action by the Security Council, while Western armies are stretched thin by deployments elsewhere.

So the best use of the ICC warrant may be as a bargaining chip with Mr. Bashir and his Chinese and Arab allies. The court's treaty allows for the Security Council to suspend a prosecution for a renewable one-year-period; Beijing and the Arab League will press for that step. That gives the Obama administration an opportunity to set a price. That price should be Mr. Bashir's exclusion from a presidential election scheduled for this year, the completion of a peace settlement with the principal Darfuri rebel groups and the full implementation of the peace accord in southern Sudan. With Sudan's oil revenue plummeting, Mr. Bashir and his party just might find that such an accommodation is in their interest. If they choose instead to respond to the arrest warrant with another wave of violence, Western governments will have to find means to respond.

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