A high-level panel led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki has begun work exploring a possible African-led solution to the crisis in Darfur. The panel's opening session heard strong calls for a deferment of International Criminal Court war crimes indictments against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.
The eight-member high-level panel includes three former African heads of state. South Africa's Thabo Mbeki is joined by Burundi's Pierre Buyoya and Nigeria's General Abusalam Abubakar.
South Africa's foreign minister, Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma, was quoted recently as saying Mr. Mbeki's role on the panel would be to intercede between Sudan and the International Criminal Court.
Speakers during the opening session at AU headquarters argued the ICC indictments against President Bashir undermine efforts to bring peace to Darfur, and ignore a unanimous appeal from African leaders for a deferment of the process.
An AU delegation is due to go to New York to press the U.N. Security Council to order the indictments be delayed for one year.
Mr. Mbeki told the gathering, which included representatives of the five permanent Security Council members, that the AU Charter claims primary authority over African peace and security issues.
"The African Union has taken the clear and unequivocal decision the continent must act not only to end war and violent conflict in Africa, but also to ensure that where war does anyway break out, all belligerents must know that war crimes, crimes against humanity and other abuses will be punished resolutely, and that a culture of impunity will not be permitted to take root and entrench itself," Mbeki said.
Most African representatives at the two-day meeting expressed support for deferring the ICC indictments to allow time for Africa-led peace efforts in Darfur.
But Sudan scholar Alex de Waal of the Social Sciences Research Center in New York said such an ideal is impractical in the current circumstances. He told VOA Africa still lacks the capacity to confront a powerful and determined leader like President Bashir on the war-crimes issue.
"The African Union has consistently called for justice in Sudan, it has consistently been embarrassed by the actions of the Sudan government, by the fact that the Sudan government has not complied with AU demands," said de Waal. "But the question is still out there, what can the African Union, with its limited capacity, what can it actually achieve when it is up against a very, very tough and determined operator in the form of the Sudan government, and very strong international agendas pushing the International Criminal Court pushing different forms of intervention in Sudan."
De Waal rejected suggestions the Mbeki-led panel is nothing more than a coverup attempt, similar to Mr. Mbeki's much criticized handling of Zimbabwe's political crisis. He called those suggestions 'simplistic'.
The panel is expected to visit Sudan soon on a fact-finding mission. It is due to issue a report to the full AU Commission within four months.