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Sudan: The Warrant for Bashir

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Summary

The International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 4 issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. The warrant signals that work is under way to resolve conflict in the country's Darfur region, but the move is unlikely to lead to Bashir's arrest.

Analysis

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant March 4 for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, charging him with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the Sudanese government's handling of the conflict in Darfur. However, the ICC stated it did not find sufficient grounds to include a charge of genocide against Bashir. The warrant was issued following a July 2008 application submitted by ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

The move shows that work is under way to resolve the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region. However, the issuance of the warrant is not likely to lead to Bashir's arrest. The warrant is essentially a compromise move against Bashir, and there are several factors that could block any substantial move against the Sudanese leader — such as an actual arrest.

Arresting Bashir requires enforcement, and because the ICC lacks enforcement tools of its own, it depends on the cooperation of its member countries. Cooperation from Khartoum is unlikely; the Sudanese government rejected the warrant as a "neocolonial tool of the West," and Bashir responded to the warrant by telling the ICC to "eat it." While some Western countries — Germany and France — stated their "respect" for the ICC warrant, other responses to the warrant have been measured and minimal if not negative. Egypt fears that potential instability in Khartoum triggered by the warrant could spill over and, more critically, that the removal of Bashir — who has ruled since 1989 — could expose Khartoum (and then Cairo) to radical Islamists battling for power. Thus, Cairo has asked the U.N. Security Council to use its authority to defer the warrant. Russia voiced opposition to the warrant, while the United States — which, like Egypt, fears instability and the rise of radical Islamist forces in Sudan — stated in non-committal terms that those who committed atrocities should be brought to justice. Other regional Arab states are not likely to support the warrant; Syria opposes it because of the precedent it sets against Damascus concerning the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

The warrant is likely to provoke a popular backlash in Khartoum and Darfur. There certainly will be protests, and Khartoum-affiliated militias such as the Janjaweed in Darfur could be prompted to carry out reprisal attacks against Western interests, including government and non-government personnel in Khartoum and Darfur. Such attacks have occurred before in Sudan, including the assassination of a U.S. Agency for International Development worker in Khartoum in January 2008 and attacks against African Union peacekeepers in Darfur.

Bashir will not leave office anytime soon. If the Sudanese government's rejection of the warrant was not already evident, it was made so by the announcement that Bashir still intends to participate in the 21st Arab Summit, set to take place in Qatar on March 30. This also means that Qatar intends to ignore the warrant — a move likely to be repeated throughout the Arab and African countries Bashir may visit (though he likely would face arrest if he set foot in Europe or North America). Having ruled for 20 years, the Sudanese strongman is not going to yield power because of the warrant. Moreover, efforts to remove him are unlikely because of the strong opposition to any drastic political change in the country.

The warrant will not go away, however, and will force the regime in Khartoum to moderate its behavior in Darfur. It will not withdraw its forces from Darfur — that would be tantamount to a surrender and would jeopardize its survival against Sudan's multiple rebellions. Facing active insurgencies in Darfur and in South Sudan — a region that will hold an independence referendum in 2011 — and a latent insurgency in eastern Sudan, the regime in Khartoum cannot release its grip over the rebellious regions. Yielding in Darfur or the south could enable insurgent groups to coordinate their operations and overwhelm the Sudanese armed forces and proxy militias. Additionally, retreating from South Sudan would compromise Khartoum's control over the oil concessions that are the country's economic lifeline.

Rather than surrender to the arrest warrant, Bashir likely will seek additional cease-fire negotiations to downplay the arrest warrant's war crimes charges.

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