What's Next For Sudan
- By Anumita Raj
On the 4th of March, 2009, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. The ICC at The Hague had been preparing for months and finally announced its first warrant ever for a sitting President. Legally, Sudan is obliged to arrest al-Bashir and hand him over to the ICC. Failing that, any other country that is one of the 108 members of the International Criminal Court is obliged to arrest him if he visits their country. It is unlikely that Sudanese officials will arrest and hand over a sitting president to an international body. It is also just as unlikely that he will be arrested by most African or Arab countries, many of whom have several reasons to oppose the ICC proceedings. Most of these countries believe that especially harsh treatment is meted out to African leaders by the ICC, while the almost all of them agree that this will further damage any prospect of peace in the country. There have been numerous appeals to the ICC to suspend or defer proceedings for a year in order to further a delicate negotiation for peace between North and South Sudan, as well as prevent any further violence on refugees in the country.
On the other side of opinion are civil rights activists and human rights groups who have hailed the warrant as the first concrete measure by an international body to hold al-Bashir accountable, and deter leaders in other countries from waging war on their own people. Experts also say that the ICC had to take this step as Sudan has shown an unwillingness to prosecute the war crimes within the country itself, dragging out the process over many years and only charging low-level officials.
Post the warrant, the Sudanese President and his allies have seemed defiant. As an immediate reaction, President al-Bashir expelled 13 prominent aid groups from Sudan, plunging a fragile people into further chaos by cutting off their only access to food and medical aid. Many believe that al-Bashir had been waiting for an excuse to remove aid groups from Sudan, as they are often the only source of information for foreign governments and human rights organisations on the situation on the ground in the deeply embattled country.
There are many important things to consider, so that a cogent and nuanced international response to the situation can be formulated. First, the immediate and urgent priority should be returning aid workers to Sudan. In a country where the UN estimates that over 2.7 million people have been displaced from their homes and forced to flee for safety, aid workers and aid groups are indispensable. All countries and regional organisations, regardless of their views on the warrant, have to band together to coerce the government to allow these groups to return. Adequate protection must be protected to these workers so that they can work without fear of capture or death, as was the case of three aid workers of the Italian branch of MSF or Doctors Without Borders, who were kidnapped days after the warrant was issued and then released later.
Second, the Sudanese government and President must be made to feel the consequences of flagrantly disobeying international law and continuing on a path of violence and cruelty to their people. The difficulty with that is manifold. To begin with, most sanctions imposed on the country by the international community have had little effect on the government itself, hurting the people far more. Second, there is a real concern over strained relations between the government in North Sudan and rebels in the South. Any further action on Sudan would most certainly affect the situation between these two parties and quickly re-ignite a conflict that is already on the precipice despite a peace treaty. Third, while remaining inside his country, there is very little that al-Bashir feels can be done to him. To that end, the UN can establish a ‘no-fly’ over Darfur. This would attach a very real consequence to the Sudanese government taking to the air in order to terrorise its own people. The government is deeply careful with its air force, in part because it anticipates more trouble, especially with South Sudan, and therefore it would be loath to do anything to damage its precious resources.
Third, and most important of all, will have to be the involvement of prominent countries, especially the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The response of the international community has been tepid, at best. The United States, whose ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is a vocal critic of the current Sudanese government, has said and done very little since the warrant was issued. The same goes for the other 4 countries of the Security Council. If any significant change is to occur in the country of Sudan, and if the warrant is to have any effect at all, these countries must show that what happens in Sudan is indeed a priority for their governments and people. This could prove to be either a challenge or an opportunity for China. China has oil interests in Sudan, and could use this opportunity to demonstrate to the Sudanese government that complying with international law could further China’s relationship with the country, and that not doing so would seriously damage the same.
Unfortunately, there are no easy or simple answers when it comes to the situation on the ground in Sudan. What is certain are the following two things; one, the world can not afford another mass slaughter of people like in Rwanda and must act decisively and two, the common citizens of Sudan, who have already suffered for years can not be allowed to suffer anymore. Everything else is a matter of permutations and combinations, and will be matter of marrying the interests of Sudan’s people with the interests of the international community as a whole.