Friday, February 6, 2009

Justice en route?

According to Sudan Tribune the International Criminal Court Trial judges have authorized an arrest warrant against Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president and head of the military regime that took power in Khartoum in 1989. The prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, had filed an application for an arrest warrant in July. The principal charge is that as president and commander of the Sudanese army, and its allied irregular militias, al-Bashir organized and controlled a prolonged campaign against civilians of Darfur, in particular against three ethnic groups (Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur) in the course of a counter-insurgency campaign against a small rebel force. The prosecutor argued that the targeted campaign against civilians amounted to genocide (the intent was to destroy, in part, the ethnic groups as social entities). Of course, all the violence against civilians also formed the basis for charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Since the ICC is so new, there is very little precedent for what kinds of evidence will convince the judges of al-Bashir's guilt on the various charges. Different scenarios are possible, from top regime officials turning against al-Bashir and offering testimony against him, to a "wall of silence" and victim and accomplice intimidation.

Some commentators have been positioning themselves as doomsayers, arguing that any violence from here on can be attributed to the arrest warrant, but the fact is that Darfur, and the tense North-South relationship, are boiling cauldrons that could bubble over at any time.

But the arrest warrant, if indeed issued, will dramatically change the power game in Khartoum. This is now the time for civilian activists around the world to be watchful, and always ready to argue that the ICC is an international institution of justice for the most heinous crimes, and therefore we all have an interest in persuading people to respect its authority, if we aspire to have some international mechanism of accountability. In some sense, a not-bad outcome would be for al-Bashir to stand trial and be found not guilty of many of the charges, with the judges in the process setting some evidentiary standards. The very fact of a trial will be an enormous deterrent to future wanton acts of violence by illegitimate regimes, rather than a license to violence. In my opinion (this is not evidence-based interpretation).

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