12 - 18 March 2009
Issue No. 938
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
With the arrest warrant against Sudan's president issued, Arab regimes must
consider the consequences if Khartoum continues to bury its head in the sand,
writes Khalil El-Anani*
The only difference between the Darfur massacre and earlier Arab massacres is
one of perception. What used to happen in Arab prisons and dungeons has
happened in front of the cameras and in full view of international observers.
Human rights brought it out in the open. That's what happened.
Had the International Criminal Court (ICC) existed five decades ago it would
have much to contend with. It would have had ample evidence of genocide
committed by Arab regimes between the 1950s and the late 1980s. Had this
happened, perhaps a few of our leaders would have experienced a fate similar to
that of Omar Al-Bashir.
However, many crimes and massacres of the past two decades were committed in
the glare of television cameras. And the West and its rights organisations
chose not to speak up. What happened in Iraq over the past two decades is a
case in point. The blockade and starvation, all orchestrated by the US and
endorsed by the world community, led to the deaths of thousands and the
displacement of many more. The havoc former US president Bush brought upon Iraq
is just as horrific as what Saddam Hussein did, and where is Bush now?
There is no reason for Bush not to be tried as war criminal for what he did in
Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no reason for Bush not to be tried for the
suffering the Palestinians had to endure because of his unquestioning support
of Israel's extremists.
What Israel did to the Palestinians is worse than what the Hutus and Tutsis did
to each other in the mid-1990s. But I see no one being brought to trial for the
displacement of nearly five million people. I don't see anyone held accountable
for the massacre of unarmed Palestinians in Sabra, Shatila, Deir Yassin and
Qana. The recent war on Gaza alone is enough to put Israeli officials on trial
as war criminals. But do you see this happening? Western media and rights
organisations have an uncanny capacity either for exaggerating or downplaying
what happens around us.
The oddest reaction to the ICC ruling on Al-Bashir came from Sudanese Justice
Minister Abdel-Baset Sabdarat. The minister said that the arrest warrant was
part of an international conspiracy aimed at seizing "Sudan's oil". The ICC
chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is working for Western oil companies,
including Shell, Chevron, Texaco and Total, the Sudanese officials say.
According to Sabdarat, Moreno-Ocampo simply wanted to "punish Sudan for not
allowing these companies to prospect for oil and giving the contracts to
Chinese, Malaysian and Indian companies instead."
President Al-Bashir, as expected, denounced the arrest ruling as an act of
"neo-colonialism". Borrowing from the rhetoric of Nasser and Saddam, the
Sudanese president urged the "formation of an international front to fight all
types of imperialism, hegemony, and humiliation."
Sudan, which is not a member of the ICC, is entitled to its views of course.
For now, the Sudanese regime claims that the ICC based its decision on
exaggerated reports. Only 10,000 people died in Darfur, Sudanese officials
said. UN and rights organisations, meanwhile, believe that 300,000 people died
and nearly two million more were displaced.
The worst part, as far as I am concerned, is this: the Sudanese regime doesn't
think that the killing of 10,000 people is a big deal. Its view is sadly not
without parallel in this part of the world. From the 1950s and into the late
1970s, it was common for certain Arab regimes to speak in this same tone
President Al-Bashir is using now, while smashing their opponents right and left.
Just as saddening is the reaction of Arab intelligentsia, a section of which is
now twisting itself out of shape to find a legal way out -- a loophole through
which Al-Bashir may walk. It's all déjà vu from Saddam's time. For some reason,
the people who are trying to help out the Sudanese leader didn't move a finger
to help out his victims in Darfur.
International justice is still taking its first tentative steps, and as I
mentioned before, doesn't seem to view all cases of injustice as equally worthy
of attention. Other countries with more bargaining power than Sudan may have
escaped the attentions of the ICC, no doubt. But let's just focus on the
business at hand; namely, that justice is now a cross- border concept. No
longer can a country credibly hide behind the screen of "sovereignty" in
matters of human rights. This is a good thing.
The ICC ruling on Sudan is a credit to the growing power of human rights
groups. Without the legal and media effort of these groups, the ICC wouldn't
have acted. Ironically, the people of Darfur are not litigants in the ICC case;
the UN Security Council is. The Darfur rebels didn't propel Moreno-Ocampo into
action. The members of the UN Security Council -- most of whom are not even ICC
members -- did. And according to Article 16 of the court's bylaws, they are the
only ones who can postpone the ICC ruling.
Sudan could have acted first, for example by bringing all those responsible for
genocide in Darfur to a fair trial, or at least by admitting that there is a
real crisis in Darfur and doing something to resolve it. Arab countries, too,
should have acted before it was too late. Instead of scrambling now to ask the
UN Security Council to postpone the ICC ruling they should have asked Sudan to
clean up its act.
The Sudanese regime is in denial. It thinks that just because China and Russia
are on its side, the UN Security Council is going to reconsider the whole
thing. This is wishful thinking. The global scene is one of continual haggling,
and Sudan can find itself sold down the river. Sudan would be mistaken to
assume that the ICC ruling is a legal gimmick that will blow over in time.
In fact, the damage is already done. The Sudanese regime and its symbols of
sovereignty have been dealt a harsh blow. From now on, the Sudanese regime will
be living in fear or in a state of "voluntary" isolation from the world. And
nothing will change that, not the posturing, not the expulsion of relief
organisations, and not the costume dancing of the indicted president.
A deal may eventually be reached between supporters and opponents of the ICC
ruling. But either way, Sudan -- and all the Arabs -- will lose. Sudan cannot
hold credible elections so long as Al-Bashir is in power. Secessionists will be
tempted to try their hand. And Darfur rebels may have another go at Khartoum,
as they did a year ago.
Arab countries, now desperate for a reprieve, may have to entice major powers
with concessions that should not be made. Egypt and Saudi Arabia may find
themselves more involved in peacekeeping operations in Sudan than they ever
wanted to. And international peacekeepers may have to be sent to Darfur with a
completely new mandate. This is all very destabilising, and yet there is worse.
Sudan may end up being a safe haven for radicals and extremists who would be
more than glad to sow chaos across the entire region.
At this point, the options are rather limited. Perhaps the Sudanese president
would buy time by taking daring steps, starting with serious efforts to bring
justice and stability to Darfur. But most likely, he'll keep playing the whole
thing down, at great peril to his regime, his country, and the region.
* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine
published by Al-Ahram