Press Conference by Non-Governmental Organizations on International Criminal Court's Indictment of Sudanese President

4 March 2009

Press Conference by Non-Governmental Organizations on International Criminal Court's Indictment of Sudanese President

4 March 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Hailing today’s decision by the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for President Omer Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of war crimes committed in Darfur, a member of the Save Darfur Coalition said years of “obstruction and brutality” by his regime had come to a momentous end, finally bringing hope for justice to war-weary and frustrated Darfuris.

“For Darfuris […] this is just unbelievable,” said North Darfur native Niemat Ahmadi at a Headquarters press conference convened by the Coalition for the International Criminal Court under the sponsorship of the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein.  Throughout the six-year conflict pitting rebels against Government forces and allied Janjaweed militia, the people of Darfur had had no avenue for justice, and President Bashir’s Government had been emboldened by its success at obstructing peace efforts and breaking every verbal agreement.

“Worse, African leaders failed to fulfil their responsibility to their own people in Darfur, spending [years] providing a type of political cover for what was going on in Darfur,” she said.  All that had made justice and peace seem unattainable, but with the decision to charge President Bashir, Darfuris scattered around the country and region, those living in refugee camps and those in the diaspora now had renewed hope that international institutions could ensure justice.

President Bashir, charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes, became the first sitting Head of State to be indicted by the Court, which did not, however, confirm three counts of genocide requested by Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

Joining Ms. Ahmadi at the press conference were Tanya Karansios of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and Richard Dicker of the Human Rights Watch International Justice Programme, who said the Court’s decision was momentous not only for the people of Darfur, but more broadly for the cause of justice and ending impunity for the most serious crimes under international law, in Darfur’s case mass murder of civilians, forcible displacement of populations on the basis of ethnicity and rape as a weapon of war, among other charges set out in the indictment.

“With the arrest warrant, the [Court] has put out a wanted poster for President Bashir,” he continued, saying the Court had linked the President, on the basis of the Prosecutor’s evidence, to widespread and systematic crimes committed against the people of Darfur.  The arrest warrant would stigmatize him and mark him as an individual accused of horrific crimes.  “I believe this arrest warrant will mark him as an accused war criminal […] that must answer to serious charges, while having available to him options for a vigorous defence.”

In response to questions, Ms. Ahmadi stressed that justice should be the priority.  Many had argued that peace should come before justice, but Darfuris believed it could only cover the wounds of years of brutality and degradation; dignity could not be restored without proper justice.  What could wipe the tears of crying children?  What could satisfy elders and young men who had been dehumanized?  What could heal the wounds of women living with the inevitability of rape every day of their lives?

“It is crucial for all of us to stand for justice and support the Court,” she said, adding that Darfuris believed that whoever was responsible for heinous crimes in their homeland -- whether rebel leaders in the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) or high Government officials -- must be brought to justice.  “We can overcome our differences as long as everyone is treated equally and no one is above the law.”

Responding to further questions about the Court’s motives and the concerns of those who saw its actions as “white justice”, she rejected the portrayal of the proceedings against President Bashir as “the West versus Arabs and Muslims”.  The reality was that the people of Darfur had been “denied the right to live as human beings” for years.  They had been driven off their lands and forced to compromise everything they believed in just to survive.

Reiterating her grave disappointment with the stance of both the African Union and the League of Arab States, she said that, in almost every instance, those regional structures had virtually ignored the people of Darfur.  “I am ashamed.”  Even in its most recent statements, the African Union had made no mention of the people, the situation on the ground or the Darfur refugee camps.  Moreover, had those regional bodies had credible legal mechanisms to protect and promote human rights, the matter would never have been referred to the International Criminal Court.

On that same point, Mr. Dicker said there was no denying that the fledgling system of international justice was flawed and that, currently, the playing field was uneven.  But to those who said such tribunals would never indict an American or European leader, today’s decision nevertheless showed that not even the President of a country was above the law.  The work was now to correct the imperfections in the system.  Those Government leaders or their surrogates who dismissed the Court as an “imperialist tool” feared accountability for the very types of crimes, and ongoing impunity for their commission, with which President Bashir was charged.  At the same time, the mere opposition to the Court among some people did not mean there should be no justice for the people of Darfur.  “Where will you stand, with the victims or the accused perpetrators?”

Asked whether the African Union might review the status of its member States’ participation in the Court’s work, as had been reported, Mr. Dicker said he sensed “a bit of bluster” in that reaction, and recalled that African States had shown broad support for the Court’s founding Rome Statute.  In addition, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic had all requested the Court to investigate rights violations in their respective territories.  At the most recent Meeting of States Parties to the Statute, convened to elect judges to serve on the Court, Africa had fielded 11 candidates.

He went on to say that the Court’s Achilles heel was that it had no police force and could not execute the arrest warrant against President Bashir.  Security Council resolution 1593 (2005), which had referred the situation in Darfur to the Court, called on the Government of Sudan and all parties to the Darfur conflict there to cooperate fully with the Court’s decisions.  Khartoum had a legally binding obligation to arrest President Bashir, and the Council, especially those members with influence, such as China and Libya, should press it to fulfil it.

When asked why he had mentioned those two countries specifically, he said he “understood the math”; the Council lacked the votes to apply article 16 of the Rome Statue, by which it could defer action on a Court decision for up to one year.  Indeed, China had not attempted to press for such action when it had last held the rotating Council presidency in October, precisely because there had not been sufficient support for it.

Those Council members should also impress upon the Sudanese Government that nothing must “impede or upset” the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), or humanitarian work on the ground, including the provision of food, shelter and clothing to millions of displaced Darfuris.

He said that assuming the warrant for President Bashir’s arrest would somehow affect the peace process was a “false argument”, because there had essentially been no peace process under way owing to the lack of political will on the part of all parties to the Darfur conflict.  At the same time, it was to be hoped that the indictment would marginalize President Bashir, as had happened with former Presidents Charles Taylor of Liberia and Slobodan Milošević of Serbia.

Responding to questions concerning the role of the United States, a staunch opponent of the Court in the past, but which appeared squarely to back its decision on President Bashir, he said he was “pretty certain” that might not be the first instance of hypocrisy when it came to justice.  Still, the United States “crusade” against the Court might be softening somewhat.  Hopefully, the new Administration in Washington would at least try to make some progress to end the double standard and “ideological embargo against the [Court]” put in motion by John Bolton, former Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations.

Ms. Ahmadi added that the Court’s decision would change many things, “especially the mood of frustration and helplessness”.  Things might not change today or tomorrow, but in the face of justice, all the Darfuri people saw hope.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.