Sudan's President Charged with War Crimes. Will He Be Tried?

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Zohra Bensemra / reutres

Supporters of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in northern Sudan

Enforcing global justice has to be the legal challenge of all time. The International Criminal Court has worldwide authority, but its executive power is limited to a few buildings in the Hague and its budget to $125 million, one-thirtieth the size of the New York Police Department's. It has wide agreement on what constitute the worst offenses, but its mandate to prosecute them is rejected by the governments of more than half the world's people.

On Wednesday, the ICC issued a warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity — the first time in its history that it has charged a sitting head of state. A charge of genocide was not included, despite ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's request and the U.S.'s repeated allegations that al-Bashir is guilty of the crime. ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon accused al-Bashir of "intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians and pillaging their property." (See pictures of Darfur descending into chaos.)

Still, there is almost no hope the warrant will be served. "As soon as al-Bashir flies outside Sudan, he could be arrested," Moreno-Ocampo told al-Jazeera on March 3. Which is to say, never.

The ICC is undermined by several enduring controversies. Supporters say lasting peace demands justice and point to the arrest and conviction of Sierra Leone's warlords — in a joint U.N.–Sierra Leonean process — which has not restarted that war, as some had feared it would. Sierra Leone "indicates how important it is to have justice if you are going to have peace," the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone told TIME when the last three militia leaders were convicted last week. But opponents argue that peace often requires amnesty more than it does justice and point to how the 2005 indictment of Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony led him to spurn peace talks. That militia, the Lord's Resistance Army, has now expanded into new areas, committing atrocities and killing hundreds in Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

There are also questions over how meaningful the ICC really is. It was set up in 2002 after 66 countries (out of the world's 195 countries) ratified the Rome Statute; today only 108 countries have ratified it. (The contradiction escalates in al-Bashir's case, which was initiated by a U.N. Security Council referral even though three of the Security Council's five permanent members — Russia, China and the U.S. — have not signed on to the statute.) Plus, the ICC has thus far only pursued Africans, in the Central African Republic and Congo as well as Sudan and Uganda. "That," said African Union chairman Jean Ping in February, "is a problem." Asking why no cases had emerged from conflicts in Gaza, the Caucasus, Colombia or Iraq, Ping said, "We don't want this double standard." (See pictures of Sudan's slow-motion tragedy.)

The danger is that the victims of the world's worst crimes will be lost in all this noise. In Sudan's case, that would be the 300,000 dead and 2.7 million refugees the U.N. has counted in Darfur. Global justice might be tough to implement. Those figures are why it's worth trying.

See pictures of Darfur descending into chaos.

Read a TIME story on Sudan.