Some notes on arrest warrant issued against Omar Hassan al-Bashir

Formally the arrest warrant issued against Omar Hassan al-Bashir is the next step in the legal process against the Sudanese president, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court prosecutor in July 2008 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But in reality, the first arrest warrant against a serving head of state, issued on Wednesday by the ICC in The Hague, is a political move.

Within twenty-four hours the concensus on the arrest warrant was shattered. In Sudan, Bashir, who refuses "to kneel to colonialism", immediately ordered overseas aid organisations to leave the country. This threatens an even greater catastrophe than the current one of some 300,000 dead and nearly three million displaced. This leaves Bashir indifferent. There is no way back for him.

There are signs of international polarisation as well. The African Union and Arab League want the UN Security Council to suspend the arrest warrant. The African and Arab worlds already consider the ICC an instrument of a one-sided western legal system. China supports this because the arrest warrant is likely to delay peace in Sudan. China has huge oil interests in the country and takes a more hands-on approach to peace in Africa's largest country than for instance the European Union.

But this does not make it improper to ask whether the arrest warrant could have an adverse effect. There are currently more scenarios that point to a further worsening of the political and humanitarian situation in Sudan and even the whole region. "A gamble with unknown consequences and very high risks," according to the British writer and anthropologist Alex de Waal, director of the non-governmental organisation Justice Africa.

The arrest warrant certainly illustrates the tension between principles and politics. Sometimes a fundamental truth leads to peace, as happened in South Africa after apartheid. In Sudan, the straight and principled path looks impassable. The political consequence could be that trying Bashir is pointless and that the arrest warrant will merely feed resentment against the west.

The opposite argument is also valid. Bashir does not recognise international law, but the arrest warrant does increase the pressure on (and isolation of) Bashir. Accomplices and counterparts elsewhere in the world now know they too can be indicted and run the risk of being accused of crimes against humanity. So the arrest warrant can send a preventative signal.

This does however demand that the case is brought to a conclusion. If this fundamental first case against a serving head of state does not reach a verdict, it will not be beneficial to the status of the ICC as the guardian of universal standards or for the international consensus that the horrific violence in Sudan must come to an end.


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