Bashir has nothing to fear for now

The international criminal court’s move to indict President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes and crimes against humanity is a historic decision with serious implications for political leaders, now in office or recently retired, who have ignored human rights and the laws of war in pursuit of contentious, arguably illegal military campaigns.

But momentous though it certainly is, in practice the ICC’s action is unlikely to have much immediate impact in terms of putting Bashir in the dock in The Hague or improving the plight of Darfur’s 2.7 million displaced people. Sudanese officials warn that, on the contrary, it could rally support for Bashir domestically while emboldening Darfur rebel groups to step up the violence.

“The court made clear that heads of state are not beyond the reach of the law,” said Juan Mendez, president of the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York. A request for full co-operation in securing Bashir’s arrest directed to all 108 state parties to the ICC’s founding treaty formed part of the latest ruling. But the pre-trial judges and the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, may find they are whistling in the wind. A statement by the UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, while supportive of the court’s action, made no mention of practical steps that Britain or its European Union partners may take to enforce it.

Speaking off the record, western diplomats admitted that the warrant could compound an already “difficult and complicated situation” in Sudan. Rather than launching into hot pursuit of Bashir, the aim in the next few days would be “to keep the temperature down,” a diplomat said.

Similar caution was evident in the Obama administration’s initial response, despite its theoretically more activist stance on Darfur since taking over from George Bush. Officially, United States policy in Sudan like just about everywhere else, is under review.

Suggestions that Bashir will be pursued through the UN Security Council, which created the ICC, also seemed wide of the mark. Russia, a permanent, veto-wielding member, warned that the warrant created “a dangerous precedent in international relations” and could further destabilise Sudan and the region.

Khartoum also says that China, the biggest outside investor in Sudan’s oil industry, has given assurances that it will block “politicisation” of the Bashir case in the Security Council. Having had months to plot a response to the ICC, Sudanese diplomats are now intent on actively increasing, and exploiting, both western political dithering and the genuine international worries about possible wider, negative consequences.

Khartoum plans to ignore the warrant and stick to a policy of “business as usual”, a senior diplomat said. “We are going to concentrate on things that really matter — development, the Darfur peace talks, the elections, and implementing the [north-south] comprehensive peace agreement.” At the same time the government will go on the offensive, a close adviser to Bashir said. Second, it will do all it can to discredit the ICC and Moreno-Ocampo.

Third, Khartoum expects the African Union to issue a statement of solidarity, similar to that agreed at its recent Addis Ababa summit. So far at least, Bashir clearly has no fear of arrest while travelling abroad. —The Guardian