First justice, then peace in Sudan

For almost two decades, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has waged foul wars on ethnic groups within his country that happened to live on oil or mineral-rich land. Today, the international community is finally close to holding him accountable. Though it could make for a rocky transition, it is the key to peace. Even before Darfur, aerial bombing, murder, and rape seemed to be his government’s tools for settling scores with the mainly African Christians of southern Sudan. In that 23-year war for resource control, just under 2 million people died as a result of mass violence.

In 2005, the US brokered a peace deal that divided control of the oil fields. But it did not address the crimes committed. And by the time it was signed, Bashir was back to the same, in Darfur. This summer, however, things changed. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, requested an arrest warrant against Bashir on suspicion of genocide. A flood of worst-case predictions followed. A fear that the situation will worsen has increased. And so have worries about chances for any meaningful peace process.

The pressure is now mounting on the United Nations Security Council to defer the ICC proceedings - as soon as this month - before the court judges decide the fate of the warrant request. This political emergency brake was meant to be used only when the interests of justice and peace collide. Bashir is clearly doing his best to convince the world that the call for his arrest will indeed collide with peace in Darfur. He recently sent a diplomatic mission to Security Council member states, promising renewed peace and possible deals. Back home, his troops attacked Darfur’s largest refugee camp, killing dozens.

In fact, the most serious threat to peace and security in Sudan is Bashir himself. His regime has the power to make the Darfurians’ life worse yet. It can also endanger international peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, upset the fragile peace in the south, and continue to destabilise its neighbor, Chad. It is doubtful whether Bashir would be ready to accept such terms. But anything less ambitious would undermine not only the ICC, but also the credibility of the member states that would allow it.

Equally important, this shift would send a clear message that genocide has become unforgivable. There might also be some real political benefits in letting justice run its course. An international arrest warrant could erode Bashir’s authority at home and abroad and speed up his political demise.

There is obviously no guarantee that in the case of Bashir the consequences would be as quick and beneficial. Sudan is a large, oil-rich state with needy and influential friends. But an arrest warrant would surely make some of his allies wonder about the wisdom of doing business with a fugitive. And, yes, the prospect of an eventual change at the top of such a volatile country may seem unsettling.

But the only stability under Bashir that Sudan has known is the one of repression, recurring armed conflict, and mass murder. The Sudanese president may have been cooperative on the war on terror, but the price has been allowing him to terrorise others.

His country and the millions of its war-tired citizens deserve a different future. And the US deserves a better ally.