A Great Day For Justice

Today is a great day for justice. One of the world’s greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses, a man who presided over a civil war in which 2 million of his countrymen were killed, and today presides over the 21st century’s first genocide, stymieing international efforts to quell it, was brought one step closer to justice.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, has been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC). As you read this, the answer to the big mystery will be known, whether or not al-Bashir was charged with genocide. Regardless, the charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and/or genocide signify one thing, since they cannot be reversed, for the rest of his life, President al-Bashir will be a wanted man.

Not everybody, including Darfur advocates, is happy about this. The uncertainty and complications that will follow leave some feeling more harm than good will come of this, but that is simply not true. Two areas of concern warrant responses.

The first area is the probability over whether or not al-Bashir will ever appear before the ICC, thus making this a futile exercise like all the rest. After all, it has been almost two years since the ICC’s first warrants were handed down for suspects in Dafur and they have, thus far, escaped justice. In fact, Ahmed Haroun, one of the two, is currently serving as Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs in al-Bashir’s government.

However, one must never say never. As it has been said, the warrants do not expire. Some scholars are wondering if a provision in the ICC’s statute, article 16, which allows the UN Security Council to suspend an investigation, might allow for the nullification of the warrants. Yet, a careful reading of article 16 makes it plainly clear that this is not the case, there is no mention of reversing warrants. Thus, as the ICC Prosecutor has stated in the past about Ahmed Haroun, whether in one year or five years, al-Bashir’s destiny “is in the dock of the Court”.

Other sceptics will argue that al-Bashir can evade justice by hunkering down in Sudan for the rest of his life, away from the ICC’s reach. This is true, but it does not account for the fact that domestic enemies, of which he’s made many, might somehow orchestrate his arrest and handover. (There is even talk now that members of al-Bashir’s government are starting to think he’s the one doing more harm than good and; thus, needs to go.) The recent apprehension of ex-Serbian President Radovan Karadzic, who had evaded an arrest warrant for almost 13 years from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia by hiding in the Serb capitol Belgrade, stands to support this contention.

And for the families of victims of the genocide in Srebrenica, which Karadzic presided over, 13 years might’ve been a long time to wait, but when they saw him standing in court, I’m sure they felt it was worth it.

The other, more complicated and larger point of debate in charging al-Bashir is that it will destabilize efforts to reach a negotiated settlement between the government and rebels in Darfur. The truth is, in the short term, it might.

Just recently the government concluded an accord, however disingenuous, with one rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. Yet, any observer of Darfur’s drama over the past six years knows that al-Bashir has proved very adept at playing Western governments and institutions. In 2006, the Darfur Peace Agreement was hailed as a major step forward. Later that year, UN Security Council Resolution 1706 set out to help enforce the agreement, al-Bashir stonewalled. Today, the peace agreement and resolution 1706 and all the resolutions that followed are reminders of what hasn’t materialized.

President al-Bashir has blocked every international attempt over the past six years to end genocide in Darfur. He acts only when his back is pressed up against a wall, doing the bare minimum to grant himself some breathing space. Those who advocate reversing the warrants, so as not to provoke this man, root their contentions in the reality of Darfur, but we must also acknowledge the reality of the man.

He has never been genuine. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the country’s 19-year north-south civil war is hanging by a thread. But not because efforts to end genocide in Darfur aggravate the situation, instead, because the man with the biggest role in its implementation, al-Bashir, is more concerned with co-opting it. His priority is not reconciliation. It is to remain in power, continue his iron-fisted rule over the country and expropriation of its resources to benefit the Arab north.

Justice cannot play politics. The ICC’s creation signalled that the world saw justice as a priority. It was an attempt to institutionalize accountability and erase impunity. When the UN Security Council referred Darfur to the Court in 2005 it reaffirmed that commitment. Today the Court took one step further in that direction. There will be complications and uncertainties that stem from this, but really, they’d have been there anyway.

Josh Scheinert is the past advocacy director of Stand Canada. He studies international law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

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