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Bashir Warrant Adds New Tension to Darfur Crisis

March 4, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir Wednesday for charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Colum Lynch of the Washington Post explains how the court's action may affect the conflict in Darfur.
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JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill has more on this story.

GWEN IFILL: And for that, we go to Colum Lynch, who covers the United Nations for the Washington Post.

Welcome.

COLUM LYNCH, Washington Post: Thank you very having me, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Now that this long-pursued warrant has been issued for President Bashir’s arrest, what happens next?

COLUM LYNCH: Well, not much. I mean, essentially, what Bashir did today by expelling the humanitarian aid workers is he’s creating a sense of crisis for the West.

One of the reasons why the West, the United States and others, have been able to not sort of act as aggressively to stop the killing that’s going on in Darfur is that there have been humanitarian aid workers, there have been U.N. peacekeepers on the ground who have been stabilizing the place to a certain degree, saving lives.

Now that you’re taking out a group of aid workers that are responsible for feeding and caring for roughly 60 percent of the population of Darfur, you’re going to face the potential of a dire humanitarian crisis, and you’re going to find that, while there’s enormous pressure on Bashir, there’s going to be enormous pressure on the West to do something about that.

Arrest could spell more instability

Colum Lynch
Washington Post
If they're seen as behaving too aggressively, as too sort of uncaring towards the people, this might also backfire for Bashir. So it's very hard to read how this is going to play out.

GWEN IFILL: So there is the possibility, which is what some have warned about, that by issuing this warrant for his arrest and his retaliatory action in expelling the aid groups, that it could contribute to more instability?

COLUM LYNCH: Yes, I think the argument goes both ways. I mean, everyone seems to recognize that this decision is a game-changer, that everything -- that this is -- we're all sort of entering into a new chapter.

There were a lot of humanitarian aid workers, there were human rights activists who say that, no, this is a good case. We've had the experience of Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, where their fall has led to a kind of stabilization of the political system.

You have others who have been warning that this could completely destabilize the situation. The government is in control on the ground and it can pull levers as it chooses. Now it's showing the world that it can create enormous humanitarian problems, and that is going to sort of kick the ball back, you know, to the West, in terms of what they're doing.

But the Sudanese have to play this very carefully. Up until now, they've been able to sort of generate enormous political support from the African continent, from Arab leaders, from Islamic leaders. They've supported Sudan's efforts to try and suspend enforcement of this arrest warrant to try and convince the U.N. Security Council to defer any kind of action for a year.

If they're seen as behaving too aggressively, as too sort of uncaring towards the people, this might also backfire for Bashir. So it's very hard to read how this is going to play out.

President not charged with genocide

Colum Lynch
Washington Post
You need to demonstrate that there was intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an entire community, and there were concerns that they wouldn't be able to establish intent.

GWEN IFILL: The counts that were read against him today included torture, and pillaging, and rape, and all kinds of terrible things, but not genocide. Why not?

COLUM LYNCH: Well, this is an interesting case. I mean, the thing that really got headlines back in July is when the prosecutor, the chief prosecutor issued his charges, which included genocide.

At the time, a number of legal experts and human rights activists who were, you know, ardent supporters of the court were concerned that he had done that because they thought that the threshold for proving that case was too high and they weren't convinced that he had sufficient evidence.

You need to demonstrate that there was intent to destroy, in whole or in part, an entire community, and there were concerns that they wouldn't be able to establish intent.

And so now this has been a bit of a setback, you know, for the prosecutor. But at the same time, you know, he has an arrest warrant. And among those charges is also the charge, the crime of extermination, which, you know, sounds a lot like genocide.

So there were -- perhaps it was a hurdle that was too high for him to surmount. However, he sort of -- I spoke to him earlier. He indicated that he's now considering whether to appeal the judgment or whether to go back to the court later with additional evidence to try and make his case again for genocide.

Sudan will resist warrant

Colum Lynch
Washington Post
I think that you saw, even though the Bush administration was quite negative about the ICC, never joined it, was quite critical of it, came along to accept it in limited circumstances.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to assume that the Sudanese government is not going to simply turn President Bashir over or in any way respect this arrest warrant?

COLUM LYNCH: Yes, they've made it clear. I mean, you know, you heard in your report earlier what the president said, that he had no intention of abiding by it. I spoke a number of times to their ambassador in New York today, and he said over and over again today -- and he said it over and over again over the last several months -- that, as far as we're concerned, we never signed the ICC treaty and, as far as we're concerned, it doesn't exist. It's a political body, it's biased against African countries, and we will have nothing to do with it.

GWEN IFILL: The United States is also not a signatory to the ICC treaty. So what has been its reaction at the U.N. and at the State Department, especially, today?

COLUM LYNCH: Well, I saw Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. today. She didn't say anything specifically about whether there should be an enforcement of this arrest warrant, but she was very supportive of the ICC, felt that it was essential, that it was vital to pursue justice in Darfur.

I think that you saw, even though the Bush administration was quite negative about the ICC, never joined it, was quite critical of it, came along to accept it in limited circumstances.

In Sudan, this is a case where the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. has a veto, was the body that authorized the investigation. And so even in the later years of the Bush administration, they were quite supportive of the court's case, prosecution in Sudan, and this administration will probably prove to be even more supportive and may provide greater cooperation with the court. But it's not clear yet whether they will join it yet or not.

U.S. position on the charges

Colum Lynch
Washington Post
As the prosecutor mentioned earlier, he is hoping that states might intercept any aircraft that is carrying Bashir to a foreign country. That's something the United States and some of its other allies, they might be able to play a role in doing that.

GWEN IFILL: Is the U.S. even in a position, because it's not a signatory to this agreement, is it even in a position to pressure other nations to arrest him, should he set foot on their soil?

COLUM LYNCH: I mean, sure. I mean, you know, the United States can publicly urge countries to do this. It, you know, is not, perhaps -- doesn't really have the moral high ground to do that, since they're not a member of the court, but they can urge others. They can work with the Europeans, whoever, who are, you know, quite strong supporters of the court and who are members of the treaty body creating the court, and try to use their, you know, sort of political support.

They could certainly provide intelligence on, you know, the travel plans of Omar Bashir. As the prosecutor mentioned earlier, he is hoping that states might intercept any aircraft that is carrying Bashir to a foreign country. That's something the United States and some of its other allies, they might be able to play a role in doing that.

GWEN IFILL: There are also those who worry that this stepping up of tensions could endanger the 2006 peace agreement. Is there a discussion about that at the United Nations, as well?

COLUM LYNCH: Well, we spoke -- our reporter in East Africa, Stephanie McCrummen, spoke with Salva Kiir, one of the -- the vice president in Sudan, who is the leader of the southern rebel opposition, which reached this kind of landmark agreement with the government in Khartoum to bring an end to, you know, this -- what was probably Africa's longest and bloodiest war.

And so they're kind of -- they're concerned about the implications, but they also -- they're sort of in the middle. When she spoke to them yesterday, they recognized that there were some dangers, but they also thought that it was important to pursue the course of justice.

So but they are aware and others are aware that any agreement that can be enforced, that can be implemented, is going to require the support of the Sudanese government. And this decision throws, you know, a monkey wrench into the works, and it really will make, you know, the whole discussion of this uncertain in the months and years ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like everyone is waiting for more shoes to drop.

COLUM LYNCH: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Colum Lynch of the Washington Post, thank you very much for joining us.

COLUM LYNCH: All right. Thanks for having me, Gwen.