The Long Arm of International Law Reaches for Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan
It took a while, but the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir over the violence in Darfur. The court stopped short of charging al-Bashir with genocide, but the indictment does mention attacking civilians, pillage, murder, “extermination”, “forcible transfer”, torture and rape.
There seems to be little question that Sudanese soldiers and militiamen have done horrible things to civilians accused of supporting the various rebel groups of Darfur. The BBC has a piece on a former soldier who described being ordered to burn villages and kill and rape their inhabitants. By his own account, he fired his bullets over the heads of the intended victims and simply lay on top of at least one young girl instead of actually raping her, but not all of his colleagues were equally scrupulous.
The pertinent question is whether countries beyond Sudan have a responsibility to intervene to end the brutality and, if so, whether the ICC is an appropriate tool for the purpose. Canadian elder statesman Lloyd Axworthy says yes, and insists that Canada should “make a major diplomatic effort to affirm the ruling” of the ICC. As Axworthy sees it, the arrest warrant is not only just but highly practical, since it may stigmatise al-Bashir to the point where “other Sudanese leaders… consider ousting him from office”.
Well, maybe. It’s not surprising that Axworthy would take this line, since as Foreign Minister under Jean Chretien in the 1990s he was a leading advocate of the ICC (which finally got underway in 2002) and of humanitarian intervention in general. Axworthy seems dismissive of the possibility that al-Bashir might react to the warrant by retaliating against peacekeepers or humanitarian workers currently active in Sudan. However, the initial Sudanese response has been to snarl defiance and expel ten foreign aid agencies. As Peter Goodspeed notes in the National Post, “concerns are growing that any attempt to seize the 65-year-old president might plunge Sudan even deeper into misery and conflict”.
Personally, I’m inclined to take these “concerns” seriously. I regard Axworthy’s brand of Canadian foreign policy, which puts humanitarian principles miles ahead of Canadian interests and is quick to try to build up global governance at the expense of national sovereignty, as hopelessly utopian and ultimately dangerous.
In the short term, hardened characters like al-Bashir simply aren’t going to roll over and lick the boots of the “international community” as easily as Axworthy supposes. And in the long term… well, global governance is great when the president of the ICC is a Canadian and three of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council are Canada’s close allies. But as various rising powers begin to play a larger role, the machinery of international law may well be used to impose unwelcome policies on Canada and like-minded nations, rather than to allow us to foist our own humanitarian preoccupations on places like Sudan.