Sudan: Retaliation Against the Hague?

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Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir

The reaction in the Sudanese capital was deceptively muted after the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir Monday with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur's five-year war. Only hundreds of people gathered outside a U.N. compound to protest Moreno-Ocampo's announcement, and government officials largely refrained from the fiery outbursts reporters have come to expect.

Coolness, however, should not be confused with inaction. Bunkered in government compounds across Khartoum, the Sudanese government quietly mobilized for a campaign of retaliation. "This is a declaration of war," Dr. Ghazi Salahuedin, a top adviser to President al-Bashir and the parliamentary leader of the ruling National Congress Party, told TIME.

Moreno-Ocampo insists that he is merely a prosecutor and that it is up to the ICC's judges, who are based in The Hague in the Netherlands, to issue an arrest warrant for al-Bashir. Sudan's government, however, has no intention of arguing its case in court. Whether the prosecutor likes it or not, the battle he faces will be intensely political. At risk is not just al-Bashir's reign or peace in Darfur, but the court itself.

While Sudan's U.N. ambassador says his country will not retaliate against the U.N., high-ranking and influential officials in Khartoum indicate otherwise. On Monday, Sudan's Vice President, Ali Osman Taha, said al-Bashir personally conveyed the warning to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sudan is "fully committed to all of our obligations," he said, quoting Bashir, "but if they take any step that will jeopardize the Sudanese government, we will make our move." Salahuedin, one of al-Bashir's top advisers, laid out what the moves might be: an escalating menu of reprisals, including kicking out humanitarian organizations, declaring prominent Western diplomats personae non grata and even dismissing U.N. and African Union peacekeepers. "Send them out," Salahuedin said, "because the U.N. has declared us Public Enemy No. 1. Why shouldn't we?"

Meanwhile, the Sudanese government has busied itself organizing blocs of solidarity against a possible prosecution. Immediately after the charges were announced, the African Union asked that the ICC "suspend" any actions against al-Bashir, and the Arab League is expected to follow suit after its emergency meeting this weekend. What's more, representatives of Sudan's southern non-Arab provinces, who fought a bloody decades-long war against successive Arab regimes in Khartoum until a 2005 peace deal brought them a share of Sudan's power and wealth, have also aligned behind al-Bashir.

Along with Russia and China, these regional blocs could exert enormous pressure by derailing a host of U.N. priorities — how else, after all, to read Russia's and China's abrupt about-face last week when they both reneged on a pledge to censure Zimbabwe's thuggish dictator, Robert Mugabe — and by pushing a Security Council resolution to defer the ICC prosecution. These ploys may not derail the case against al-Bashir, but they could hobble the nascent ICC's position as the world's authoritative legal body and embolden resistance to its jurisprudence.

Even more lethal, a presidential adviser said Sudan's government might encourage Arab and African states to withdraw from the ICC entirely. Just two-thirds of the world's governments are signatories to the Rome Statute that recognizes the ICC's jurisdiction, and neither Russia, China nor the U.S. is among them. Withdrawals by Arab and particularly African states — the focus of much of the court's recent activity — would be a severe blow to the ICC's existence.

In Darfur, peace seems far away. Sudanese officials say that as word circulated over the weekend that Moreno-Ocampo would seek al-Bashir's indictment, a large contingent of rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement crossed the border from Chad. In the past, high-profile statements from the international community against al-Bashir have emboldened the rebels, and Sudan's government expects a rebel offensive soon. But in the wake of Moreno-Ocampo's charges, will the government feel constrained? "No," Salahuedin said, laughing dryly. "They have to be beaten. They have to be taught a lesson."

Sam Dealey is a contributing editor at Reader's Digest.