x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Charges against Bashir do more harm than good

There are very practical considerations that argue against the International Criminal Court's relentless pursuit of the Sudanese president.

Sudan has bigger concerns at present than international criminal charges. With national elections looming in April and a referendum on southern secession set for next January, the country's fragile 2005 ceasefire hangs in the balance. The human rights situation in the war-torn western region of Darfur also continues to fester. It is this last situation that the International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is trying to remedy, in legal terms at least. Mr Ocampo prevailed yesterday in convincing judges to reconsider genocide charges brought against the Sudanese president Omar al Bashir, who already faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Yesterday's decision hinged on the standards of evidence needed to bring the weighty charge of genocide against Mr Bashir. There can be no argument that the worst of atrocities have been committed in Darfur - atrocities that have been woefully unaddressed by Khartoum. The six-year conflict has seen about 2.7 million Sudanese displaced and more than 300,000 dead. There are conflicting claims about Mr Bashir's direct role - and his involvement with the Janjaweed, a loosely unified nomad militia accused of the worst crimes in the region and allegedly funded by the government. There is no doubt, however, that Darfur has been a disgrace for his presidency, and the international community.

The argument in favour of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is that it is the best tool for justice when a country fails to act on its own. The rebuttal, espoused by members of the Arab League, is that the court politicises the idea of international justice and does more harm than good by interfering in the affairs of sovereign countries. In the case of Mr Bashir, the current head of state, this argument carries particular weight.

But there are also very practical considerations that argue against Mr Ocampo's relentless pursuit of Mr Bashir. There is doubt, to say the least, whether ICC charges have any teeth when brought against a sitting president, although Mr Bashir has been forced to curtail his travel itinerary to avoid countries where he might be detained. Isolating Mr Bashir has greater consequences however. The Sudanese president is - perhaps unfortunately- the most important actor as domestic elections loom. These elections will determine not only the government in Khartoum, if they are fair, but the referendum could see the most important transformation of the map of the Arab countries since 1948.

Arab, African and other countries should be diplomatically and economically engaged at every level to work towards stability in a post-referendum Sudan. As distasteful as it may be to some, this includes working with Mr Bashir as much as possible. The victims of Darfur deserve justice, and crimes committed there will not be forgotten. This delicate juncture, however, is not the time to settle scores, but to prevent another conflagration.