- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

JUBA, SUDAN — Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s decision to attend South Sudan’s independence celebrations in Juba on Saturday has created potentially awkward situations for delegations from countries that have been pressing for his arrest on a war crimes indictment.

South Sudanese officials are sensitive to these largely Western concerns and are choreographing a delicate diplomatic dance to avoid awkward encounters.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Lt. Gen. Bashir on allegations of war crimes in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.

To mark South Sudan’s independence, President Obama has dispatched a delegation that includes U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was present at the signing of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The agreement ended two decades of a civil war in which 2 million people were killed.

The U.S. delegation is expected in Juba early Saturday.

Rep. Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, is part of the delegation. He has no intention of meeting Gen. Bashir.

“If the U.S. delegation decides to meet with President Bashir, I will not attend,” Mr. Payne told The Washington Times in email.

Barrie Walkley, the U.S. consul general in Juba, said there are no plans for the U.S. delegation to meet Gen. Bashir. “That is U.S. policy,” he said.

Western officials and analysts say Gen. Bashir’s presence at the celebrations will create some uncomfortable situations.

“For Western leaders, I suspect it creates some awkwardness and a need for precise choreography of events,” said Jon Temin, director of the Sudan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

A senior Western official in Sudan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said southern officials have assured the diplomatic corps in Juba they will do everything to avoid any embarrassments.

“The government is sensitive to these concerns and is going to do everything possible to make sure there are no embarrassments of any sort, on any side, on that day,” the official said. “They are conscious that this might be awkward to Bashir as well.”

A special seating arrangement has been worked out to minimize the possibility of blushing faces.

Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir will be seated alongside Gen. Bashir at the ceremony, which will be held at the mausoleum of John Garang, who led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the civil war.

African delegations that have been largely sympathetic to Gen. Bashir will be seated on his side. Western and non-African delegations will be seated on Mr. Kiir’s side.

“It is a way of separating Bashir from those who might feel uncomfortable in his presence,” said the senior Western diplomat. “That way, when the heads of the Western delegations come up to give a speech they won’t have to walk past Bashir.”

A State Department official, who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the issue, said the U.S. is committed to international efforts to bring Gen. Bashir to justice.