If the prognosticators are correct, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will issue its first arrest warrant for a sitting head of state on Wednesday afternoon. That's when the court will announce whether Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir ought to stand trial on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his alleged role in orchestrating the Darfur conflict. Regardless of what one makes of the idea of international justice, an arrest warrant would be a historic move that many human-rights experts believe will further erode that sense of impunity shared by dictators the world over.
As a result, it is perhaps no surprise that Sudanese officials have become more bellicose about the prospect of an arrest warrant. Last month, National Security and Intelligence Chief Salah Gosh said that anyone in Sudan who tries to execute the warrant will have "his hands, head and parts" cut off. As for the international community, he warned, "We were Islamic extremists, then became moderate and civilized, believing in peace and life for everyone. However, we will revert back to how we were if necessary. There is nothing any easier than that." (See pictures of Darfur descending into chaos.)
On the face of it, the statement makes no sense. The atrocities in Darfur began long after al-Bashir took power and supposedly turned "moderate and civilized." Meanwhile, amid fears of a violent reaction should al-Bashir be charged, other government officials have promised that there will be no retaliation against aid workers or U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Darfur or the hordes of journalists who have flown to Khartoum in anticipation of the announcement.
Those contradictory messages point to what some experts believe is a widening gap between al-Bashir's supporters and other leaders in Sudan, who wouldn't necessarily mind seeing al-Bashir on trial. "An arrest warrant will change the dynamic of Sudanese politics radically," says Christopher Hall, head of Amnesty International's Justice Project. "You have a President of your country who is subject to an international arrest warrant, a fugitive from justice, and the implications for the country will be enormous. My guess is that there will be some very serious thinking among senior members of the Cabinet about whether Sudan would be better off enforcing that arrest warrant." (See pictures of Sudan's slow-motion tragedy.)
Al-Bashir's government is accused of playing a key planning role in the Darfur conflict, which has killed some 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million in five years. In July, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo sought an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on allegations that he oversaw plans to exterminate three ethnic groups in Darfur.
Al-Bashir has sought solidarity among fellow African leaders, a notoriously tight-knit bunch who, as Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu put it in a New York Times editorial on Tuesday, "have so far rallied behind the man responsible for turning that corner of Africa into a graveyard." Despite Sudan's having garnered the support of China and Russia, it is now all but certain that the nation will not manage to persuade the U.N. Security Council to suspend the investigation or force the ICC to postpone its decision for a year.
While Hall and other experts say the government may not find it politically expedient to allow protests, the U.N. is not so sure. Its peacekeeping force in Sudan, which was intended to have more than 30,000 troops at full strength, now has only 12,000. It is lacking essential equipment, including helicopters, and considers itself vulnerable. On Monday, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi issued a travel warning that spoke of the arrest warrant as all but a sure thing. It said Europeans and Americans could be the target of "violent protests" if the warrant is delivered.
Alain le Roy, head of the U.N. Peacekeeping Department, acknowledged some fear of upheaval. "What we don't know is the level of violence," he said. "We hope the government of Sudan will act responsibly to make sure that all beginnings of violence will be stopped in due time."