Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Thursday, March 5

Bashir and the ICC

Yesterday, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir; Bashir is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, pillaging, and mass displacement. The much-anticipated announcement came after months of deliberations since the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, requested the indictment. The U.N. Security Council has the power to stay the charge for up to one year, but no such action has thus far been taken. The three-judge panel ruled against charging Bashir with the crime of genocide.

Immediately following news of the decision, the Sudanese government ordered several of the largest humanitarian organizations working in Darfur to close down operations. According to the AP, at least 10 groups have been expelled, including MSF, Oxfam, IRC, CARE, and Save-UK. The move will affect hundreds of thousands—potentially millions—of people in the western Darfur region, as well as in north and east Sudan, who depend on critical services provided by NGOs in displacement camps and in the absence of government infrastructure, including vital water, health, and sanitation facilities. An abrupt pullout could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

It's hard to see, exactly, how this all plays out. It's possible that Khartoum is bluffing, or that calmer voices in the U.N. or A.U. will prevail and can broker a deal to allow the agencies to continue operations. If not, though, it seems unlikely that the Security Council, having abstained from intervention before the issuance of Bashir's arrest warrant, will opt for a stay at this point, especially since it will appear as if the three Western veto powers capitulated in the face of Khartoum's threats. More likely, it seems to me, this could lead to something along the lines of tougher sanctions—or, probably less likely, as Nicholas Kristof is suggesting, targeted military strikes on Sudan's air force. But what will that mean, in the short-term, for the thousands of people in northern Sudan who have been left suddenly without basic social services? Eastern Chad, for one, is probably in store for a new influx of refugees into its already overcrowded and under-equipped camps. A mass cross-border exodus has the potential to be disastrous, given the already rickety state of things in Chad, but hopefully the international community is better prepared to deal with such a situation today than it was, say, in Eastern Congo in 1994. 

Still, though, the number of wild cards in Sudan's deck right now is worrying: the coarse relations with and similar instability in neighboring Chad and CAR; the tenuous peace in South Sudan; the ongoing rebellions in Darfur; the rapid withdrawal of humanitarian assistance; and now the open question as to what effect having a fugitive for a president might have on politics within Khartoum. The destabilizing forces weighing on Sudan seem to grow by the day.