Int’l Criminal Court Warrants May Not Bring Gaddafi Closer to Justice

By Patrick Goodenough | June 28, 2011 | 5:30 AM EDT

Sudan's leader Omar al-Bashir arrives at Beijing International Airport on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. China is a major economic partner for Sudan, and Beijing extended the invitation to Bashir despite an international warrant accusing him of war crimes and genocide. (AP Photo/Liu Jin, Pool)

( – As the Libyan regime shrugged off International Criminal Court arrest warrants issued for Muammar Gaddafi and two others, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s arrival in Beijing Tuesday underlined the difficulties faced by the ICC in enforcing its authority.

After the Netherlands-based tribunal issued warrants for Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam, and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the decision “highlights the increasing isolation of the Gaddafi regime” while White House press secretary Jay Carney called it “another step in this process of holding him accountable.”

The experience of Bashir, however, calls those assessments into question.

The Sudanese leader has been wanted by the ICC since early 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the conflict in Darfur. Genocide charges were added last year.

Despite that, China this week becomes the latest – and most important – of a growing group of countries that have welcomed the Sudanese leader over the past two years. Others include Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Eritrea, Mauritania, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and most recently Iran, where he participated in a government-hosted “counter-terrorism conference” at the weekend.

None of those countries are parties to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC. Signatories are obliged to honor arrest warrants issued by the ICC.

On the other hand, all of them are member-states of the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council in 2005 passed a resolution referring the Darfur conflict to the ICC, and urging all member states to cooperate fully. (China and the U.S. abstained, although for different reasons; the Bush administration opposed the ICC, arguing it could be abused to bring politically-motivated prosecutions against U.S. troops deployed abroad.)

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attended an Arab League summit in Qatar in March 2009, weeks after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest. With him here is the emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. (AP Photo)

Even more frustrating for the ICC and its proponents than Bashir’s visits to non-ICC signatory states were his trips to Chad and Kenya last summer, and to Djibouti last month. Those three countries are parties to the treaty, and should arguably therefore have arrested him – or at least not have invited him. That they ignored their obligations was the outcome of a decision by the African Union (A.U.), taken at a July 2009 meeting in Libya, that its members would not cooperate with the ICC in Bashir’s case.

Even Denmark, which like other European Union members is an enthusiastic supporter of the ICC, invited Bashir to a climate conference in Copenhagen in late 2009, claiming that it had no choice since it was a U.N. event. (Human rights activists fumed, and Bashir in the end stayed away, citing as his reason the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy.)

There have been some impediments to Bashir’s travel, however.

His flight from Tehran to Beijing landed in China Tuesday a day behind schedule, after his aircraft turned back over Central Asia and returned to Iran. In a statement that shed little light on the matter, Sudan’s foreign ministry said that the flight was “delayed because of an amendment that took place on the route of the presidential plane over the territory of Turkmenistan at a time that it was no longer possible to pass through the new path forcing the pilot to return to Iran after flying over the territory of Turkmenistan.”

Turkmenistan is not a party to the ICC treaty so it is not clear if, or why, it would have raised overflight difficulties. If it did, it may have done so on the basis of the 2005 U.N. Security Council resolution.

In other setbacks faced by Bashir, an invitation to attend an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Turkey in November 2009 was rescinded after Turkey, which although not a Rome Statute party does aspire to join the E.U., came under strong European pressure.

Two invitations by Uganda – to an A.U. summit last year and to attend re-elected President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony last month – resulted in awkwardness, complaints by human rights advocates and an ultimate non-appearance by Bashir.

‘Warmly welcomed’

Despite those incidents, Bashir is far from isolated. Apart from the governments that have laid out the red carpet for him he also enjoys the support of the African Union, the OIC and the Arab League.

After his re-election last year two senior U.N. officials even attended his inauguration ceremony in Khartoum. ICC prosecutors have urged governments to avoid all non-essential contact with indicted suspects, but U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon explained that the two – the head of the U.N. Mission in Sudan and the joint head of the A.U.-U.N. Mission in Darfur – were there “within the framework of their mandate.”

Bashir’s latest travels have taken him to his regime’s most important military supplier, and its number one oil customer.

Responding to criticism over the visit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei pointed out that China is not a signatory to the ICC treaty, and noted that Bashir has been “warmly welcomed” by a number of other countries.

“We have urged China to join the international community in its call for Sudan to cooperate fully with the ICC as required by [the 2005 Security Council resolution],” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

“We’ve made it clear with regard to any travel of Bashir to ICC countries, and to countries that support this, that it’s not something that we favor,” she said.

According to U.N. estimates, some 300,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million driven from their homes as a result of fighting that first erupted in 2003 between militias backed by Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow