Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Bashir Finds Strong Support

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Aug 6 2008 (IPS) - In its first ever move against a head of state, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prepared last month to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes allegedly committed in Darfur. Since then, most Arab and African leaders have condemned the move, which some local commentators see as politically motivated.

“It’s an attempt by certain western countries to internationalise the Darfur problem for their own political ends,” Ayman Shebana, political science professor at Cairo University’s Centre for African Studies told IPS.

On Jul. 14, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested that the court’s preliminary panel issue an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Violations, said Moreno-Ocampo, were committed by the Sudanese President through the use of military and paramilitary agencies linked to the state in Sudan’s western Darfur region since 2003.

According to widely quoted ‘international experts’, between 200,000 and 300,000 people have been killed in the region since non-Arab Darfuri insurgents took up arms against the government five years ago. The same experts are quoted as saying that some 2.5 million have been displaced by ongoing violence over the same period.

Sudan has rejected the allegations, describing them as “null and false.” It puts the number of casualties much lower, at about 10,000 from both sides.

African and Arab leaders have hastened to register their opposition to the ICC move. In the days following the announcement, both the Arab League and the African Union (AU) urged the ICC to delay indictment for a 12-month period to allow Sudan to carry out its own trials.

Egypt has been particularly vocal in its support for al-Bashir, who has ruled over fractious Sudan since 1989.

On Jul. 23, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit called the move to indict the leader “irresponsible and perilous.” The court’s accusations against al-Bashir, he warned, “will have negative impact on establishing justice in Darfur.”

Days later, President Hosni Mubarak reiterated Egypt’s support for Sudan.

“I reject the turning over of any African leader to the court,” Mubarak declared at a joint press conference with South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria Jul. 29. He went on to say that efforts were being made to postpone the indictment and that “there are positive indications that the crisis will be resolved.”

According to Shebana, the situation in Sudan, which shares a roughly 1,200 km border with Egypt, is of extreme importance to security forces in Egypt.

“Security in Sudan is considered a major part of Egyptian national security,” he said. “Egypt plays an important role in keeping the peace in Sudan, both in the south and in Darfur.” Shebana points out that Egyptian soldiers account for some 20 percent of the hybrid UN/AU peacekeeping force deployed in the troubled region.

Based on the 1998 Rome Statute, the Hague-based ICC was launched in 2002 with the ostensible mandate of investigating and prosecuting leaders accused of committing genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

“The court is mandated with prosecuting individuals – leaders and high-ranking officials – rather than governments, parties or political regimes,” Aymen Abdelaziz Salaama, professor of international law at Cairo University, told IPS.

Sudan is not among 106 countries that have fully signed on to the ICC convention. “Sudan, like Egypt, has signed the charter, but its parliament has not ratified it until now,” Salaama said. As a non-signatory, Sudan has argued that the court lacks jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed on its territory.

Salaama says this argument lacks legal foundation. “The court’s jurisdiction extends to any country, whether an ICC signatory or not, if the UN Security Council – citing a threat to international peace and security – requests that the court investigate crimes committed in that country.”

In 2005, Salaama said, the UN Security Council did exactly that when it passed Resolution 1593, which called on the ICC to investigate crimes allegedly committed in Darfur by the Sudanese state since 2003.

“This is why Sudan’s claim – that, as a non-signatory to the ICC, the court lacks jurisdiction – is not legally accurate,” said Salaama.

Shebana, however, questioned the international court’s motives. He said the Darfur conflict was being exploited – with the ICC’s help – by foreign powers greedy for the region’s mineral wealth.

“Historically, the lack of development – rather than ethnic differences – has been at the root of the conflict,” he said. “The west only began turning it into an international issue after the discovery of uranium and petroleum in Darfur.”

Shebana pointed to “considerable evidence of a U.S., French and Israeli presence in Darfur which has promoted rebel activity.” He pointed to a move by the Sudan Liberation Party, a major Darfur-based rebel group, to open a representative office in Tel Aviv in Israel earlier this year.

“If the rebels had not been supported and emboldened by these foreign groups, the crisis would have been resolved five years ago,” he said.

Shebana said the Sudanese government was not alone in committing violations in the troubled region. “War crimes are certainly being committed,” he said, “but by both the government and the rebels.”

Shebana suggested that the humanitarian situation in Darfur was being exaggerated by both western NGOs working in the area and media organisations.

“Some humanitarian agencies in Darfur are doing brisk business by inflating the numbers of victims and refugees to obtain more funding from the international community,” he said. “Such exaggerations also serve the ends of the foreign powers that want to internationalise the problem with the aim of dividing Sudan.”

According to Salaama, one of two possible scenarios could play out in the event an arrest warrant is issued for al-Bashir.

“First, Sudan could simply turn al-Bashir over to the court,” he said. “But if it refuses to do so, the ICC can request a UN Security Council resolution, under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, to impose gradual sanctions on Sudan.

“This would begin with the cutting of diplomatic relations,” Salaama added, “but could eventually escalate into a naval blockade of the country and then – in a worst-case scenario – the use of military power to force Sudan into compliance with ICC demands.”

Tensions, however, appeared to ease on Sunday (Aug. 2), when the UN Security Council issued a decision to extend the UN/AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur by one year. The decision also called for discussions on the postponement of the case against al-Bashir for a 12-month period.

“The UN Security Council decision was a good omen for Khartoum,” said Shebana. “Arab and African efforts must continue in order to stave off further escalation against Sudan.”

Salaama, however, was more cautious.

“Even if a delay is granted, this doesn’t mean the case has been withdrawn by the Security Council,” he said.

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