Arabs Are Leaving Themselves out of the International Justice System
Before the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its arrest warrant for Sudan's President, Omar Bashir, for crimes against humanity and war crimes, a poll last month showed 91% of the Arab public believes the ICC's prosecutions are politically motivated. But those 91% misunderstand the nature of the atrocities committed in Darfur – all the way from why and how the crimes are committed, to the identity of the perpetrator.
The role of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC stipulates that he prevents impunity, stops the offenders and puts an end to those crimes in Darfur, by holding those who committed the crimes accountable. His role is needed because without justice, lasting peace in Darfur will be hard to achieve.
If today the ICC has enough evidence to arrest an Arab leader for committing crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, it is largely because the international community – including Arab countries – for the past six years did little to stop him. Perhaps as important to the victims in Darfur, the Arab world's contribution to their humanitarian assistance over the past few years has been dismal compared to western relief efforts.
A dangerous precedent
Some Arab ministers of foreign affairs view the ICC moves against Bashir as a dangerous precedent, where it issues an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state. But the question we must ask here is: should a president be allowed to commit crimes against humanity and against his own people and get away with it? The dangerous precedent, in fact, would be to overlook a head-of-state's crimes and maintain a state of impunity.
Arab officials who accuse the ICC of being biased should recall that the victims of this violence – including 300,000 civilians killed in Darfur between 2003 and 2008 – are Muslims. So are the 2.5 million displaced persons living in tents and in refugee camps for the past six years, not to mention the countless number of women who were raped during the fighting. Here, the ICC is standing up in support for Muslims' rights. Some Arab leaders missed that.
President Bashir denies the allegations against him and does not recognize the ICC or its decisions. And he is of course innocent until proven guilty. If he is found innocent, he will leave the court freely and then it might even be proven that an international conspiracy was plotted against him.
Justice for Muslim war crime victims
Without a doubt, international law and order remain imperfect. But the ICC is starting to bring war criminals to justice. And this is not the first time this court has sought to try a president who killed Muslims. Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested at the request of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (another international court based in The Hague).
Karadzic was arrested just last year mainly on charges of killing thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the Balkan wars of the 1990s – in particular the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in cold blood.
The problem is that Arabs are leaving themselves out of the international justice system. They act as if they are targeted by justice instead of helping them to bring about justice, for their well-being and interest. This is the same attitude the United States adopted by not joining the ICC out of fear that American citizens could be arrested or prosecuted abroad.
In reality this court is international and is not a Western conspiracy tool or a "colonisation instrument" like the Sudanese regime wants us to believe. The three judges are from three different continents; one is Ghanaian, the second comes from Brazil and the third is Latvian.
The short history of international justice demonstrates that international courts are not quick to resolve cases. Today, after years of apathy towards the Darfur massacres, the Sudanese government, along with many Arab governments, finds itself confronted by a limited number of options.
Risk of further destabilisation
The ruling Sudanese National Congress Party (NCP) can find a new President and hand Omar Bashir over to the court or put him in exile. The NCP and Bashir can also decide to maintain the status quo and hold the peace process and stability in Darfur hostage to their wishful thinking. This is a path that would be taken by a leader who is not willing to bring justice and peace to his people. This would raise the stakes high in Sudan and the region as a whole.
If the NCP allows injustices and impunity to continue, and opts for confrontation, there is speculation that the NCP may declare a state of emergency and clamp down on internal political opposition. This would naturally include the Darfur opposition groups, to show them they will not be able to use the ICC arrest warrant to their political interests.
The NCP strategy is to survive at the cost of democracy in Sudan. This would risk further destabilisation in the country, given the inevitable opposition from many within Sudan.
The Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPL/M), the NCP's partner in government, could strongly oppose any attempts by hardliners within the NCP to derail the peace process.
Achieving a real change of power in Sudan
Sudan's Arab and international allies are showing a strong interest in the country's stability, and they too must pressure the regime to react with restraint. Egypt with its interest in regional stability and access to the Nile waters, and Gulf states with their big economic investments in Sudan's agriculture and real estate sectors, should push the NCP to immediately stop impunity and be serious about establishing a system of judicial accountability.
They must also work with others to achieve a real change of power in Sudan, instead of lashing out with criticisms of international law.
Finally, if the NCP decides to keep Bashir in power, any prosecution is not likely to start for many years. With that, Bashir's Sudan will become a pariah state with an increasingly isolated and boycotted president. Internationally, Bashir will not be able to travel anymore, for fear of being arrested. Internally, he will be constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering if and when Sudan's powerbrokers – including his own party – will decide that he has become a liability and that it is time for him to go.
© Al-Hayat 2009