The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of the President of Sudan. It is the first warrant ever issued for a sitting political leader. Many have applauded the court for the move, but others have decried the action as vain and injudicious since the court has no ability to enforce the warrant or make an arrest and it has the real possibility of destabilizing the fragile region even further. It certainly highlights the complex development of international law. It will serve as a test case for many potential future actions by international courts.
I cannot make an informed comment on the merits of the evidence brought before the court or the courts decision to issue the warrant. I have only a bare knowledge of the situation in Sudan gleaned from mainstream news outlets, so I will not pretend to be an expert on the subject.
But what President Omar al-Bashir and his government have done in response to the warrant is incredibly revealing. They have ordered 10 major humanitarian aid organizations to depart the country, alleging that they are part of a western conspiracy to undermine the stability and security of the country. These 10 organizations account for a majority of the relief work going on in Darfur and their forced departure will likely mean a crisis for over 2 million people who depend on them for clean water, food, clothing, shelter and medicine.
Whatever al-Bashir is or is not guilty of, ejecting these organizations is a way for his government to make good on a threat to retaliate against any outside attempt to intervene in the conflict. The message is being sent that they not only won't cooperate with international courts, but they will hold their own people hostage if confronted about their handling of the civil war. The terrible irony is that this response can only serve as a massive confirmation of the suspicions which led to the warrant in the first place. The president of Sudan is putting the gun to his people's head, but he is also putting it to his own.
There are lots of legitimate legal and philosophical questions to be explored in a case like this. What is the extent of the sovereignty of nations? How can we hold political leaders accountable to laws and standards they don't recognize? To what degree are international courts legitimately criticized for being hegemonic enterprises? Do race and economics have an unseemly hand in international law?
All of those questions, though, have been overshadowed by al-Bashir's paranoid and inhumane response. He could have mounted an interesting, and possibly credible defense for himself by choosing to either cooperate with the court or ignore the warrant. Depriving 2 million of his own people of clean water is not going to help his case, however.