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Sudan Seeks Support to Defy International Justice

Sudan has launched a diplomatic offensive against an attempt to bring Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of genocide and war crimes stemming from the conflict in Darfur. Tendai Maphosa reports from London.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir scoffed at the idea of prosecution and one of his senior advisors warned that if the International Criminal Court persists, Sudan would not be able to guarantee the safety of U.N. peacekeepers or other foreign nationals in Sudan.

They were reacting to the announcement in The Hague by the criminal court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, that he is requesting an arrest warrant for the president.

Moreno-Ocampo said even though the president may not have actively participated in events in Darfur, he gave the orders to have people killed, raped and displaced.

"He basically targeted to attack three groups, the Fur, Masalid and Zaghawa to destroy them, first he attacked them in the villages, they removed from the villages, they went into camps and now they are attacked in the camps so genocide is a crime of intention we don't need him to kill two million people to say now we can sue him, we need to stop him before," he said.

Should the court's pre-trial judges agree, Mr. Bashir would become the first sitting president to have such an arrest warrant issued against him.

The request for a warrant for President Bashir's arrest brings up the issue of immunity enjoyed by heads of state and government under international law.

Anthony Dworkin, who runs a non-government organization to raise public awareness of the laws of war, explains that heads of government can be prosecuted.

"There is a long standing principle in international law that heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution, but that immunity is limited to other national courts, to domestic jurisdiction in other countries, so a head of state cannot be prosecuted while he is serving in office in another state," he said. "But there is a long-standing tradition in international law that international tribunals do not have to give immunity to head of states."

Dworkin cautioned that even if Mr. Bashir were to be indicted, apprehending him would be almost impossible.

"The government of Sudan should deliver the suspect to the court, but no one expects that to happen as Sudan has not cooperated, so far, with the arrest warrants that have been issued for two other much more junior people," he said.

Dworkin added that countries that are signatories to the International Criminal Court would be obliged to execute the arrest warrant if President Bashir goes on to their territory. As a result, he says, the Sudanese leader might just avoid visiting those countries.

The Sudanese government has repeatedly denied the allegations against it and rejects the court's jurisdiction. In addition, Sudanese embassy spokesman in London Khalid al-Mubarak believes heads of state and government cannot be arrested.

"All heads of government have got immunity; this was actually through an initiative by President Eisenhower a long time ago and his argument was that heads of government travel to solve problems that is why immunity is important for them," he said.

The government has also sought to enlist the support of other Muslim and African countries. The African Union has petitioned the U.N. Security Council to defer the International Criminal Court's decision to investigate and prosecute President Bashir.

Sudan has also warned that ICC charges could dim prospects for peace negotiations in Darfur.

International law expert Elizabeth Wilmshurst of the London-based research center, Chatham House says that should a warrant be issued there is a way to keep the peace process going.

"The court statute itself provides a way out; if a particular court process is detrimental to a particular peace process article 16 of the statute says that the Security Council, on behalf of the international community can ask the court to stop proceedings for a year," she said.

Human rights activists say formal charges against Mr. Bashir would send a strong message to other leaders who abuse the rights of their people that it is not business as usual any more.

Others fear that, once indicted, despots will hold on to power to avoid being brought before the courts, as they remain untouchable as long as they hold office.

Mr. Bashir's case will be followed closely. Calls for Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to answer for the violence surrounding his recent re-election campaign have grown louder in recent weeks.