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Step toward justice in Sudan long overdue

12 March 2008 at 05:27 | 663 views

By Dr. W. Andy Knight,University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

On June 6, 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced the beginning of a formal investigation into crimes committed in Darfur, western Sudan. This comes two years after the start of widespread and flagrant violations of the human rights of mostly black African farmers in that region.

What does this investigation mean for the people of Darfur? What does it say about the international community’s sporadic interest in addressing the problem of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possible genocide, in this part of Sudan? And is it a case of "too little, too late"?

Since the mid-1980s, the entire country of Sudan has been destabilized by civil conflict between the predominately Arab north and the Christian and animist south which has left two million people dead and millions more displaced. That conflict seems to be subsiding. In fact, just last month United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited the southern Sudan region to discuss the January 2005 peace deal that officially ended a 21-year war between the Sudanese government and southern rebels. But the peace agreement will be very much dependent on a 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping force agreed to by former rebel leader John Garang during Annan’s visit.

A few days earlier, Annan had toured the other war-torn region of Sudan - Darfur. This is where the ICC will be conducting its investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN Secretary General has been very careful not to use the word "genocide" to describe what has been happening there - partly because both the African Union and the Arab League are very much opposed to describing the acts being committed in Darfur as genocide.

However, a UN commission of inquiry submitted a report to the ICC at the Hague which sparked the call for an independent and impartial investigation of crimes being committed in this conflict, not only by the band of marauding Janjaweed, but also by police, other militia groups and even government forces.

What the UN commission found was what other groups active in Sudan, such as Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and Médecins sans Frontières, have been documenting for two years - acts of killings, torture, gang rape and other sexual violence, abduction of children, burning down of houses and crops, poisoning of wells, looting of property, harassment and intimidation, forced migration and internal displacement.

There might not yet be conclusive proof that the Sudanese government is intentionally trying to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group in Darfur (the international legal definition of genocide), but certainly the crimes being committed by pro-government Arab nomads against black African farmers are serious enough that the U.S. administration has used the term genocide - and this comes from a government that does not support the ICC. The UN referred the Darfur case to the ICC after the U.S., which opposes the court, backed away from using its veto in the UN Security Council.

The International Criminal Court was created in 1998 precisely to deal with these types of cases. Already over 180,000 people have died in Darfur and close to two million are displaced by the conflict. The Sudanese government claims that it not supporting the Janjaweed and that it is doing its best to bring the violence to an end. Yet it has proven unable or unwilling to stop the bloodletting.

The ICC investigation will offer hope to the people of Darfur that there will finally be an end to the culture of impunity that has taken hold in Sudan. According to Abiodun Williams, a spokesman in the UN Secretary General’s office, "it is this culture of impunity that needs to be nipped in the bud, otherwise other potential international criminals will think that they can commit such acts and get away with it."

The ICC investigation will also bring some hope to black Darfurians that the international community is finally interested in their plight. The war in Iraq, concerns with both North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs, the HIV/AIDS crisis across the continent of Africa, and conflicts in the Congo and Uganda have relegated Darfur to a secondary status in many newspapers. This investigation indicates that perhaps finally the international community is moving from rhetoric to action. An investigation is just the first step in that process. But it is an important step.

It is possible that key members of President al-Bashir’s administration could be singled out as responsible for some of the crimes being committed. At the very least the Sudanese president might be implicated for fostering the culture of impunity that currently exists.

Articles 2(7) and 2(4) of the UN Charter intimate that the UN should not intervene in the affairs of sovereign states. However, there is a norm of "responsibility to protect" that is attached to the sovereignty claim. If a government cannot or will not protect its own people from atrocities like the ones being committed in Darfur, they more or less give up their right to be sovereign. However, this "norm" is not a very robust norm at this point. So, the international community has to tread lightly.

In any event, 51 individuals will be subject to the ICC investigation because they are suspected of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, plunder, rape, and other atrocities. Is this a case of "too little too late"? Certainly it is for those families whose loved ones have died or have suffered at the hands of the Janjaweed, the Sudanese government, the police, and other militia groups in Darfur, the ICC investigation is overdue. But the international community has at least stepped up to the plate and is doing something that might send the message that this culture of impunity will not stand. It is only an investigation, to be sure; but it could lead to indictments of key officials in the Sudan government and act as a deterrent to those who might consider committing such crimes in the future.

Dr. W. Andy Knight(photo) is professor of international relations at the University of Alberta. This article originally appeared in the June 6, 2005 edition of the Edmonton Journal.