Charging of al-Bashir may provoke a violent backlash

OPINION: The International Criminal Court may lay genocide charges against President Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator, …

OPINION:The International Criminal Court may lay genocide charges against President Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator, but he's unlikely ever to stand trial, writes Simon Roughneen.

'Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin." The words of former US president Dwight Eisenhower may offer some long-term solace for those caught up in Sudan's regionalised wars, but yesterday's landmark charging of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, with 10 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) may scupper any chance of bringing peace to the wider region.

Or so goes the argument. The "peace and justice" template has become a "peace versus justice" dichotomy, as immediate-term political realities prompt less idealistic observers to question the efficacy of courts and tribunals intervening in real-time conflicts.

To illustrate, in Uganda, ICC proceedings against senior figures in the millenarian-psychopathic Lord's Resistance Army are regarded as hindering the faltering peace process, after two decades of cult-driven rape, abduction and murder. Meanwhile, the ICC trial of Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese militia boss accused of recruiting child soldiers, has stalled amid disputes over evidence being withheld from the defence.


Sudan might prove different, however. Not only are the charges more significant - including genocide - politically speaking, there is scant peace left for the ICC to destabilise. In early May, the Darfurian rebel group called the Justice and Equality Movement, backed by Chad, launched an audacious attack on Omdurman, just outside Khartoum - the first time in Sudan's long wars that the capital has been directly threatened by any militia.

Darfur's failed 2006 peace agreement was a dead letter partly because it did not address issues such as compensation, and made no provision for accountability at local, national, or international levels. In the end, only one rebel group signed. Thus, justice might well be a prerequisite for peace in Sudan.

Later in May, the south-central oil hub Abyei was destroyed, as government forces drove the former southern rebel group out of the town, which sits on top of perhaps 40 per cent of the country's proven oil reserves, and which could become part of an independent southern Sudan in 2011.

Since then, the two sides pledged to resolve the Abyei issue, and an electoral law has been passed, paving the way for landmark polls slated for 2009. But Sudan has known only three years of dysfunctional democracy - between 1986-89 - since independence in 1956, and during that time has been a war zone for all but 11 years.

Peace in Sudan is a facade. The former rebel group that government forces drove from Abyei - in reality those of the National Islamic Front (NIF) which took power in a 1989 coup - is the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army, technically part of Khartoum's government since a 2005 peace deal ended a two-decade war between al-Bashir's government and the southerners.

Anticipating the indictments, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told France's Le Figaro newspaper that he is "very worried" about the prospect of al-Bashir's indictment, but then added, "but nobody can evade justice".

The fear now is that international agencies and particularly the UN/African Union hybrid peacekeeping mission will be targetted in retaliation. However, seven peacekeepers were killed last week in northern Darfur, in an attack that the UN believes bore all the hallmarks of a government-led operation.

In other words, the Sudanese had already trained their guns on the peacekeepers, who first came under government fire in the first week of deployment, in January 2008. Camps hosting Darfur's 2.5+ million people displaced by the violence could be more vulnerable now, however, not least if some of the more politicised groups in the camps organise demonstrations in support of the ICC, and the government reacts.

The UN/AU mission is under-manned and under-resourced, and would struggle to even ensure the security of its own people should the Sudanese up the ante. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the force will have the means or the will to protect Darfurians in the coming weeks, should Sudan's ruling NIF regime react.

Will the charges result in al-Bashir facing trial? The truth is, unless he is deposed, either by the type of coup he himself led in 1989, or by a unified political-military opposition, al-Bashir will almost certainly sidestep justice. For fantasists, the former outcome is most feasible, if only because NIF internal machinations are sufficiently opaque to make second-guessing difficult.

Al-Bashir can now justify increased violence in Darfur, undermining Sudan's democratic transition, which was always in the balance in any case. There was never much incentive for him to hold anything resembling fair elections in 2009, as the NIF could lose a legitimate poll.

Whatever security fallout ensues, it is likely to be regional, with implications for Ireland. A senior Sudanese official said as much to the state news agency Suna after the ICC announcement yesterday.

In the mix are Irish and other European troops, deployed to Chad and the Central African Republic to address the human fallout from Darfur's tragedy.

Leaving aside revenge conspiracies targetting Eufor, the al-Bashir backlash will resonate across the border into Chad in any case, given that these conflicts are inextricably linked.

Beijing-backed al-Bashir has wanted rid of French-allied Chadian president Idriss Deby since at least 2005. This outcome would significantly improve al-Bashir's leverage in Darfur, and in turn, in the rest of Sudan.

However, Sudan and Chad were de facto at war long before yesterday, supporting each others' rebels.

Sudan's president has friends in high places and can call the ICC's bluff. Fresh from blocking a UN Security Council sanctions resolution against Robert Mugabe, Beijing - which dominates Sudan's oil industry - will likely invoke a clause suspending the ICC proceedings for 12 months, a move that Russia is likely to support.

However, there is some reason for cautious optimism. With ICC judges to spend the next three months considering the merits of prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's case against al-Bashir before deciding on how to proceed, we may see Chinese-induced pledges of co-operation and good behaviour from the president, and an ensuing bout of horse-trading over political negotiations in Sudan, and vis-a-vis the UN/AU force in Darfur.

The NIF has a history of responding to real sticks, even if only to save its own skin, as per the concerted US pressure that led to the 2005 north-south peace deal, when al-Bashir worried that his links to Osama bin Laden could spark American-backed regime change.

Maybe, just maybe, the ICC charges could prompt a volte face by the NIF leadership, not least as patron China will not want adverse publicity in the weeks leading up to its showcase Beijing Olympics.

• Simon Roughneen is a freelance journalist