Omar al-Bashir seized power of the Sudan in 1989, and has ruled ever since as the military dictator of one of Africa’s most ruthless regimes. In the Darfur region of western Sudan, a war has raged for about five years, with government troops and proxy fighters committing massive bloodshed against rebel groups as well as civilians and entire villages seen to be sympathetic to the rebels. Despite enormous outcry from the rest of the world, and pressure from the U.N. and powerful nations, al-Bashir has shown no inclination to temper or cease the bloodshed. On the contrary, it appears that his regime has only ramped up the violence in a war that is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of human beings through murder, combat, starvation and disease.
But earlier this week, al-Bashir announced a unilateral ceasefire.
He did so, not because of governmental pressure or diplomacy, but because the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, asked for al-Bashir to be charged personally with multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Charges have not been formally brought, but the ICC is expected to go forward soon. If he is formally charged, he will be the only head of state to face ICC criminal proceedings. This would harm his position at home, especially if he were to be prosecuted for genocide, and if the charges were to stick. Despite appearances, al-Bashir is believed to truly fear a conviction under international criminal law.
To avoid that possibility, al-Bashir took advantage of a technicality permitting the U.N. Security Council to defer legal action. China, one of the five Security Council permanent members, is tight with its major oil supplier, and would likely go to bat for Sudan. Russia, another permanent member, has significant economic ties to Sudan, particularly as the supplier of weapons and attack helicopters used by the regime to such deadly effect.
He still needs to get the approval of the United States, Britain and France, however, if he wants to get a deferred prosecution under Article 16 of the Rome Statute (which established the ICC in 2002).
We know what you’re thinking — these three modern, civilized, Western powers would never go along with that. Well, you might be wrong. Letting the ICC prosecute a head of state would be a terrible precedent for the U.S., which routinely declines to be held to “international” standards of conduct. Britain and France are perceived as open to “positive responses” that make the problem go away.
Hence this week’s ceasefire. It’s a “positive response” that might help appease Britain and France. There’s more al-Bashir can do, of course. Sudan’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs — the person responsible for the aid effort to Darfur — is already indicted on 51 war crime counts. Throwing the minister to the wolves would be another nice gesture.
And if all else fails, he can just terminate Darfur aid, kick out UNAMID (the wholly ineffective joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force), and then blame the resulting death and suffering on the West. That could work, too.
So far, however, it looks like he’s taking the plea. The world is watching to see if the ICC will actually be effective in halting the ongoing tragedy.