The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, following a three-year investigation, has charged the president of the Sudanese regime, Omar al-Bashir, with genocide and crimes against humanity. Whatever the implications of this unprecedented action for the future of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front, there are good reasons for believing that the ICC has struck a broader blow against the complacent conviction, prevailing in too many countries, of sovereign immunity from atrocity crimes.
But the issue of the day seems not to be these extraordinary criminal charges themselves, but how Khartoum’s gnocidaire-in-chief will respond to the ICC announcement. Yet the issue has been badly framed with its focus so exclusively on Bashir. He heads a security cabal that has remained largely unchanged since it came to power by military coup in June 1989, deposing an elected government and never itself holding meaningful elections.
This ruthless hold on power has come from the unified effort of a ruling clique that also includes security chief Saleh Gosh, vice-president Ali Osman Taha (who held the Darfur portfolio from 2003-2005), and senior presidential adviser Nafi Ali Nafi (who currently oversees operations in Darfur). Although not named in Monday’s announcement by the ICC prosecutor, they all know their indictment is only a matter of time. They are collectively calculating how to sustain their grip on power under the magnified scrutiny by the international community that will come as a result of the ICC announcement.
It is of course impossible to know what retaliatory measures Khartoum may contemplate or put in place. Their options are all too plentiful. Some have argued that the camps for displaced persons have become suddenly more vulnerable with the ICC announcement. These grim camps, holding more than 2.5 million people, have for many months been cauldrons of rage and despair, and awash with guns. There have long been warnings from humanitarians on the ground that they could explode at any moment. Khartoum doesn’t need to wait for provocative pro-ICC demonstrations to crack down with savagery – and indeed has done so on a number of occasions. Moreover, food rations in the camps have been cut by nearly half for the past two and a half months, and the reductions are set to continue for the foreseeable future. Conditions have long been ripe for explosion.
Many humanitarians also fear for their own safety following the ICC announcement. Yet for four years aid workers have been the target of a relentless war of attrition by Khartoum, subject to harassment, obstruction, intimidation and abuse (including beatings and arrests). [They depend upon UN peacekeepers for what meagre security is provided.] But just last week, on July 8, Janjaweed militiamen carried out an extraordinarily brutal attack on a convoy of UN peacekeepers in North Darfur, all from African nations. Twenty-two people were wounded. Seven died.
As the retiring head of UN peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guhenno, made abundantly clear in a closed-session briefing of the Security Council last Friday, the attack was extremely well-planned, carried out in an area controlled by the regime and included men wearing army khaki and traveling on horseback (signature features of the Janjaweed). Guhenno also insisted that the attack was designed not to seize weapons but to kill personnel.
This attack was not a response to the ICC announcement which hadn’t yet been made – but part of a continuing effort to intimidate the hybrid UN-African Union mission (Unamid), as Khartoum had intimidated the African Union force that preceded it. The same was true of the premeditated attack on a Unamid convoy by Khartoum’s regular military forces last January. The attacks are linked to one another, not to ICC actions.
Khartoum can make life more miserable for humanitarians, but the change will likely be incremental, not full-scale – again, if only because of the heightened scrutiny the ICC actions have brought. The real question is whether the UN security council will make effective use of this potent ICC announcement. Under Article 16 of the Rome Statute, the council has the power to suspend ICC investigations or prosecutions for a year, with the possibility of renewed suspension. The impending ICC arrest warrant for Bashir, with clear implications for other senior members of the regime, should be the key point of leverage for the security council in making forceful demands: that the regime cease to attack and impede deployment of Unamid; that it verifiably rein in the Janjaweed; that it end its war of attrition against humanitarians; and that it undertake good faith peace negotiations with the rebels, who must themselves be coaxed to participate in what will be an arduous process of compromise. Pressure is all Khartoum understands, and only if the regime clearly meets these benchmarks should the security council intervene in the workings of the ICC.
With its relentless and principled pursuit of those responsible for atrocity crimes, the ICC has created opportunities for political pressure that offer the people of Darfur their best chance for improved humanitarian conditions, security and a glimmering hope of peace. It is hardly surprising that the ICC announcement is overwhelmingly supported by victimized Darfuris themselves.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]