24 Mar 2009

Sudan: was al-Bashir indictment worth it?

Intelcenter - www.intelcenter.comMake preparations,” the second-in-command of al-Qaida said today, “for a long guerrilla war, because the modern-day Crusade has bared its fangs at you.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri was addressing President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague three weeks ago.

I interviewed the ICC’s chief prosecutor last July on the day he announced his decision to press for an arrest warrant. Luis Moreno-Ocampo argued that impunity fuels conflict and that faced with what he called “the evidence,” he had no option.

“Bashir’s control is absolute,” he told me. “It is time to put an end to impunity for crimes committed in Darfur.” 

The prosecutor dismissed arguments that the act of indicting al-Bashir would itself reignite conflict in Darfur and that those whom the ICC sought to defend – the two million displaced – would now be more vulnerable to attack.  “You’ve been talking to Alex de Waal!” he joked. 

Alex de Waal, a former mediator in AU-sponsored Darfur peace talks, is one of those who warned of likely backlash and retaliation and of the incompatibility of peace and justice. 

I’ve just called him. “It’s beginning to go horribly wrong,” he began, while agreeing that it probably wasn’t appropriate for him to venture an “I told you so.”

“It’s high stakes,” he went on. “Two drunks in the road. There are no rules.  We are just seeing the beginning. The nature of predicting doom is that you have to be very careful, but it’s not looking good.”

I told him about news of the Ayman al-Zawahiri video. He wasn’t surprised. He reminded me that Bashir’s security supremo, Salah Abdullah Mohamed Gosh – not so long ago, darling of the CIA for his cooperation in the War Against Terrorism – had recently threatened to “revert” to Islamist extremism. 

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Since al-Bashir’s indictment, Sudan has hosted officials from Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Islamist opposition leader, Hassan al-Turabi, was released from prison without explanation – but apparently at the request of the Muslim Brotherhood.

All this goes beyond the backlash that was predicted by doomsayers last July – but all of which is coming to pass too. I spoke just now to a contact in a leading international aid agency who said the humanitarian situation in Darfur is worsening dramatically. 

Since President al-Bashir ordered 13 international relief agencies out of Darfur, the provision of food, water and medicine to more than a million displaced people has been jeopardised. In one of the biggest camps, Kalma, in South Darfur, all assistance has been suspended since the six big agencies running services were expelled.

“It’s having a huge impact,” my contact said, while recounting a surge in attacks on aid agency staff and UN peacekeepers. Three foreigners working for Medecins Sans Frontieres were kidnapped by a pro-government militia a couple of weeks ago. (They were later released). Gunmen killed a Sudanese worker for a Canadian aid group last night.

UN peacekeepers have twice been targeted by armed groups since al-Bashir’s indictment. One was shot dead in an ambush the day before the president himself went to Darfur last week.

Al-Bashir’s latest trip, and his first abroad since his indictment, took him to Eritrea yesterday. It was his latest ruse at sticking two fingers up at the ICC.  He remains defiant; the ICC is meanwhile calling even on countries that haven’t signed up to its jurisprudence to arrest him if they have half a chance.

It’s just been announced that al-Bashir plans to fly to Cairo on Wednesday. He’s unlikely to face arrest there either, as Egypt is not one of the 108 members.

So was it worth the indictment? I asked my aid agency contact.  “I don’t know,” he said, “I really don’t know.

“The truth is it really is the very poorest and most vulnerable who have suffered most by this decision.” And this, in a territory where in six years more than 300,000 have already died.

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