Can world court survive African Union's attack?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir: Indicted but still free

Story highlights

  • African Union seeks International Criminal Court's charges dropped against Sudan's president
  • Olivia Warham says too many African leaders prefer not to shine spotlight on crimes of others
  • She says not only AU that's unwilling to end Sudanese regime's impunity; U.N. doing same

On January 20, 1942 the Nazi high command gathered at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss eliminating European Jewry. One attendee expressed reservations, worrying that they might one day be held responsible. Hitler dismissed the man's concerns, saying, "Who now remembers the Armenians?"

Had Hitler lived, his rhetorical question about the Ottoman Empire's extermination of more than 1 million of its citizens would have received a belated response at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

The African Union (AU) has called for the International Criminal Court's charges against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to be dropped. As Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC's chief prosecutor, departs his post, can the institution survive the AU's attack? Has it lived up to the expectations for international justice set at Nuremberg?

Field Marshall al-Bashir is the only sitting head of state to be indicted for genocide, in his case in Darfur. However, al-Bashir eludes arrest because his own regime will not surrender him. He travels freely, knowing few governments would risk offending Sudan by detaining him. Even nations that signed the Rome Statute founding the ICC argue it cannot apply to sitting heads of state. Because the ICC lacks the power to override national sovereignty to arrest those it indicts, it depends on the cooperation of governments who have signed on to its provisions.

Malawi's new leader Joyce Banda refused to hold the forthcoming AU summit if al-Bashir attended, and she has been roundly condemned by the AU because she evidently believes human rights are a universal value, rather than a Western plot. Too many African leaders prefer not to shine a spotlight on the crimes of others, fearful they will one day be the focus of attention.

Olivia Warham

Even though the ICC is actively investigating war crimes in Colombia, it is accused of picking on Africans, ignoring the behavior of Western nations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Israel's actions toward the Palestinians. But to accept this argument is to fall into a trap set by those African dictators, tribalists and kleptomaniacs who would prefer to carry on oppressing their own people. The ICC, to its credit, places a premium on the rights of beleaguered African citizens, whereas the AU seems more concerned to guard the privileges of the tyrants who rule too many of its countries.

It is not only the AU that is unwilling to end the Sudanese regime's impunity. On January 8, 2012 the U.N. gave the indicted war criminal Ahmed Haroun, the governor of Sudan's war-torn South Kordofan state, a helicopter ride to a meeting. The U.N. said Haroun was crucial to ending local conflict stirred up in part by the governor himself. Haroun is charged with 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur by the ICC, and yet the U.N. was facilitating his movements rather than arresting him.

Before we dismiss the ICC for its failure to bring the likes of al-Bashir to justice we should consider the views of his victims. My human rights group, Waging Peace, has daily contact with survivors of al-Bashir's ethnic cleansing in Darfur. They repeatedly tell us how important it is that the world has recognized the wrong done to them. Although they know al-Bashir may never face trial, his indictment is supremely significant.

It is salutary to watch people crowding around the radio or TV in village bars in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sierra Leone or Liberia or Rwanda, as their abusers face justice in a distant court room. What might seem like empty gestures in the scheme of things are hugely important to those who were wronged.

An exact parallel is the importance of assuring victims of sexual abuse that society recognizes they have suffered an unacceptable injustice. Most survivors are unlikely to receive an apology, but it is somewhat consoling to know that what they endured was not their fault, and has been recognized as unacceptable by a global entity like the ICC.

The ICC accepted drawings of the Darfur genocide by child survivors in refugee camps, collected by Waging Peace. Knowing their pictures may one day be used to bring the killers of their fathers, brothers and uncles to justice is empowering and cathartic to the young artists.

If we are serious about promoting peace and reconciliation in the world's conflict-shattered societies, we must also be serious about bringing indicted war criminals to justice. Lasting peace is not possible without justice, or at least an end to impunity.

We could make the ICC more effective by threatening to suspend aid and favor to nations that welcome indicted war criminals. Until we are prepared to get tough and threaten sanctions, we send a signal that our words of condemnation carry no weight.

Yet again, too many of Africa's leaders have demonstrated they are not worthy of their long-suffering, resilient and resourceful citizens.

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