Catch me if you can
Mar 28th 2009
The president of Sudan thumbs his nose at the International Criminal Court
OMAR AL-BASHIR certainly gets around. In defiance of the arrest warrant for war crimes issued against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 4th, the Sudanese president has spent the past week jetting about northern Africa. He visited Eritrea, Egypt and Libya and was planning a trip to Ethiopia. Having called on some of his neighbours, he is making up his mind whether to attend a summit of the Arab League in Qatar on Monday March 30th.
Mr Bashir is scathing about the allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes that are levelled against him. As he travelled, a spokesman for the Sudanese foreign ministry said that the president considers the warrant for his arrest “not worth the ink it is written with—and this is the message of this trip.”
For now the ICC is putting on a brave face. Speaking to al-Jazeera television the court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, retorted that Mr Bashir’s trip is “a sign of desperation rather than a challenge to the ICC”. In fact the trip demonstrates the enormous difficulty faced by the court in getting those indicted into the dock.
Within Sudan Mr Bashir faces no threat of arrest. In Khartoum, the capital, people prefer to avoid talking in public about the indictment of the president. When pressed, a typical response is no more than a resigned shrug of the shoulders. A few dissidents explain that after two decades of military rule, it is time for Mr Bashir to go. Those more sympathetic to Mr Bashir, notably in government and business, suggest that the warrant is part of a broad American conspiracy to steal resources (mainly oil) from Sudan. For them, the president’s wanderings are welcome evidence of his thumbing his nose at the court.
Beyond Sudan Mr Bashir is slightly more at risk, but he has designed his tour with care. Eritrea, Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya have all failed to sign up to the ICC and thus they have no direct obligation to nab Mr Bashir (although any member of the United Nations is expected to co-operate with the court). The African Union and the Arab League, of which they are variously members, have both called for the arrest warrant to be deferred, arguing that it will destabilise Sudan.
It might grow trickier for Mr Bashir if he decides to go to Qatar, which would involve travelling through international airspace. The president’s supporters worry that his plane could somehow be diverted to a third country which might be more willing to enforce the ICC’s arrest warrant, sending Sudan’s president to The Hague.
In Qatar Mr Bashir could have pause for thought. The host country itself has not signed the Rome treaty which set up the court, so is not obliged to detain Mr Bashir. But Jordan, Djibouti and the Comoros—all members of the Arab League—have signed up to the court and should in theory lend a hand in bringing the indicted president to book. In practice, with the Arab League rejecting the validity of the warrant, this is most unlikely.
Yet Mr Bashir might yet hesitate. Various former heads of state—from Liberia’s Charles Taylor to Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic—were eventually delivered to international tribunals, despite widespread belief that the courts were toothless because they lacked the direct means to conduct arrests. The Committee of Muslim Scholars, Sudan’s highest religious authority, has issued a fatwa advising Mr Bashir to avoid the Arab League summit because “the enemies of the nation are creeping round”. Should Mr Bashir decide to stay home, he has a convenient excuse to do so.