With the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo's application for an arrest warrant this week against Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the volley of threats between the international community and the Sudan government is intensifying. What do Darfur's own citizens feel is the best way to get Khartoum to stop bankrolling the janjaweed attacks and letting them return to rebuild their ravaged communities? Attorney Sara Darehshori is Senior Counsel with the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch. After traveling to the region and listening to others who have spoken extensively with Darfur refugees, she says that given the sense of hopelessness that negotiations to stop the government-sponsored attacks were at an end, many Darfuris passionately want the international community to intervene and indict Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir for genocide.
"Today, I heard a woman who just spoke to a bunch of people in refugee camps and they said that after the prosecutor's announcement, this was the first time they could sleep. It was a big deal for them to hear that the international community was going to hold Bashir accountable," she said.
Darehshori herself interviewed dozens of refugees at the Darfur border with Chad in July of last year, shortly after the ICC's indictments of two Sudanese officials, cabinet minister Ahmad Haroun and janjaweed militia commander Ali Kushayb.
"I went to Chad to the border, where there are over 200-thousand Darfuri refugees last summer, as part of, basically, a research mission to investigate how the International Criminal Court is performing on the ground because we wanted to see what kind of impact the court is having on the communities most affected by the crimes and how they perceived justice. When I was there, I talked to numbers of refugees in four different camps about their perception of justice issues. And at the time, there had been two arrest warrants issued, the first two against Haroun and Kushayb. And they were pleased with those warrants, but they were hoping for more," she said.
Darehshori found the refugees convinced that Khartoum's intractability to international demands, coupled with a faint exhibition of world determination to take action to punish Sudanese officials had embedded an overriding mood of hopelessness. But she was encouraged to detect a spirit of resolve in the refugee camps that international institutions would find the means to make Khartoum pay for its crimes.
"The perception was: there's no justice in Sudan. So their only hope for justice was the International Criminal Court, and the fact that the ICC was investigating was encouraging to them. But they wanted them to go up the chain of command. And what surprised me was how many people said, 'When are they going to bring charges against Bashir'?" she said.
Despite fears of government retribution against humanitarian workers and attacks and other crippling moves against UN and African Union peacekeepers, refugees, according to the Human Rights Watch legal counsel, were determined to press their grievances in the hope that the outside world would listen and take action. She discounted warnings by some African Union officials that this week's start of investigations against President Bashir were "dangerous" A threat of repraisals, she said, was no "reason to drop charges against a suspected war criminal criminal because there's a fear that they are going to commit more war crimes. It's kind of a self-defeating argument in that you can't have the international community or the court held hostage to threats of additional violence."
From a historic perspective, Sara Darehshori points to several high-profile indictments for war crimes that initially were given little chance of success, but which ultimately paved the way for groundbreaking achievements in the restoration of human rights and the rule of law in other unresolved conflicts.
"We can look to other examples in which sitting heads of state have been charged with war crimes, like Milosevic or Karadzic, or Charles Taylor. At the time when those warrants were requested, they were all seen as controversial, but in the long run, they all eventually contributed to peace and stability. And the sky that was supposed to fall never actually fell," she pointed out.