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The risky relations between Sudan, humanitarians and the International Criminal Court

With the judges of the ICC due to announce whether or not Sudanese president, Omar Al-Bashir, will be indicted, their decision will have major consequences for the security of humanitarian actors and Sudanese civil society, for the resolution of the long Darfur crisis and for the credibility of the ICC. Is his indictment an unavoidable but dangerous gamble?

Twice in 15 days, the international justice system proved that it refused all impunity for tyrants [1] : the first on 14 July 2008, when Luis Moreno Ocampo called for the indictment of the Sudanese president, Omar Al-Bashir, and the second on 21 July, with the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader. Two observations can be made about these events: the first is that the international justice system does not only accuse African leaders [2] , and the second is that the Sudanese case has sparked a blaze of reactions and questions in political, judicial, academic and humanitarian sectors.

The creation of the ICC introduced a major change in international relations giving life to the concept of international criminal justice. Since 1998, the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide can no longer find refuge indefinitely and this should be celebrated. However, the gamble of indicting the Sudanese president brings with it security risks for aid workers and civil society. If the judges of the ICC decide to issue a warrant for the arrest of Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, this will probably lead to reprisals, to the rapid deterioration of living conditions in Darfur and will make the delivery of aid impossible. It will also probably lead to the collapse of the already precarious Darfur Peace Deal, bringing down with it the embattled Global Peace Agreement.
The gamble of an indictment is risky. On one side of the equation is the struggle by the international justice system against impunity regardless of the cost and on the other is stability and the security of civil society and humanitarian actors. Behind the legal question of an inviolable international law (the concept of non impunity) lies the question of the pertinence of such a decision with regard to the context and its consequences. The justice/security dilemma raises two major questions:

  • Should a legal decision, disconnected from the context, be taken despite the fact that it puts the lives of humanitarian workers in danger and runs the risk of making the conflict worse, or should we continue to hope that negotiations will bring results?
  • Is the legal principle of the struggle against impunity more important than the security of the population and humanitarian workers? The possibility of charges being pressed against the Sudanese president also implies that NGOs should clarify where they stand on the ICC in terms of independence, non-politicisation and belief in the struggle against impunity, especially for actors working in Darfur, a region which has suffered a great deal for many years.

[1] Mamou, Sopo and Soskin, in the « Débats » section of le Monde in the edition of August 10 2008.

[2] Refers to the numerous accusations that the ICC only judges African leaders and ignores other conflicts (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories).