Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The International Criminal Court in action

After much dithering, the International Criminal Court finally issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir. Those who opposed such a warrant have argued that this warrant will reduce Bashir's willingness to negotiate a solution to the Darfur problem and thus make matters worse. The ICC argues (not unreasonably) that its mandate is to pursue international justice, and potential political spillover effects ought to be solved by the international community.

A good discussion of the quandary, with participation by the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, appears in a Riz Khan show (Al Jazeera) from last September, available on Youtube. Not surprisingly, Al-Bashir's government strongly protest the warrant; it has also retaliated against international humanitarian organizations active in the Darfur region.

On the one hand, this action demonstrates how little Al-Bashir really cares about his supposed constituents, all his protestations notwithstanding. On the other hand, it also provides ammunition to those who argue that the indictment is a bad idea. A useful analogy here is to the issue of negotiating with hostage takers. Al-Bashir is essentially using his own population as hostages: threaten him, he says, and many of the hostages will die.

Despicable though such a threat is, it cannot simply be ignored. However, those who advocate heeding it (and not issuing an arrest warrant, for example) tend to ignore a key feature of this crisis: the past few years have shown that the 'hostages' are dying at a depressing rate anyway.

The real choice is not between saving lives (giving in to Al-Bashir) and pursuing justice (not giving in), but rather between pursuing justice at the probable expense of some lives, and not pursuing justice at the known expense of many of those same lives. By this point in the Darfur crisis, any claim that the ICC action is likely to make things considerably worse seems tenuous (and perhaps disingenuous).

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