President Obama supports implementing the war crimes indictment by the International Criminal Court against Sudanese President Omar Bashir, a strong indication of the tough approach the new administration will take toward Sudan as well as its favorable view of an international body the Bush administration refused to join.
Corrected paragraph: “We support the ICC in its pursuit of those who’ve perpetrated war crimes. We see no reason to support deferral [of the indictment] at this time,” said Ben Chang, a spokesman for Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones.
Mr. Obama gave his support for an arrest warrant — which could be handed down within days — despite concerns that pursuing charges against Gen. Bashir could provoke Khartoum to retaliate against humanitarian groups and plunge the country into even more bloodshed and chaos.
Top Obama administration officials such as Susan Rice, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have long advocated a hard line toward the Bashir regime. Ms. Rice, who worked on peacekeeping issues in the Clinton White House and as assistant secretary of state for African affairs during President Clinton’s second term, is said to have been scarred by the U.S. and international failure to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which nearly 1 million people were killed.
Top regional specialists who have participated in negotiations with Khartoum caution that support for the Bashir arrest warrant would send the Obama administration down a path of confrontation that could further destabilize Sudan and say it isn’t clear how authorities would carry out the arrest.
“Hold off this loopy idea of prosecuting the head of state who has signed the absolutely pivotal peace agreement,” said Alex de Waal, an Africa specialist who advised Robert B. Zoellick, who was a U.S. envoy to Sudan during talks that led to a 2005 treaty between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south.
“How do you negotiate with someone and then say, ‘We’re going to drag you off to jail?’ ” Mr. de Waal asked. “The guy’s a criminal, but that’s not the point.”
Humanitarian groups working with some of the 2.5 million people displaced by the fighting in Darfur are concerned that Gen. Bashir will retaliate against them.
“We are worried that an indictment might lead to violence and are taking every step possible to try to mitigate against that risk,” said Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, a coalition of 175 nongovernmental organizations that work in developing nations.
The aid community, Mr. Worthington said, is “the easiest target.”
“They’re unarmed. They’re working in a war zone. We’ve made it very clear to the United Nations and the government of the Sudan that they need to avoid any attack on our community in retaliation for an indictment.”
The Obama administration has signaled awareness of potential blowback if a warrant is issued. Ms. Rice said Tuesday that Sudanese bombing of rebel groups in a Darfuri town, Muhajiriya, was in “anticipation of an arrest warrant.” She called on the Bashir regime to stop the bombing and allow a U.N. and African Union joint peacekeeping force (UNAMID) into the area.
“The onus is on the government to halt all aerial bombardment, to allow UNAMID to have complete freedom of movement, and to … effectively carry out its mandate to protect civilians,” she said.
The bombing follows two weeks of fighting in and around Muhajiriya, which was seized by a rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement.
Many specialists say the violence is an indication of the chaos Khartoum could unleash if the ICC issues an arrest warrant. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo charged Gen. Bashir on July 14 with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Mr. de Waal also said that going forward with the indictment would be “destabilizing” because it would “become the preoccupation of the Sudanese political class and especially the government.” The result, he said, would be that “they cannot get to do all the other business that needs to be done to make Sudan’s transition to democracy actually work.”
Sudan is nearing an election in 2011 in which the south may vote to secede from the north. The conflict between the two regions over religion and natural resources sparked a 20-year war that ended in 2005 even as Khartoum violently put down resistance in Darfur.
The Bush administration in 2004 labeled as genocide the bloodshed in Darfur that has killed more than 300,000 people. Although it refused to ratify and even “unsigned” a Clinton administration document joining the international court - which the Bush administration viewed as subordinating U.S. sovereignty - it supported ICC indictments and arrest warrants against lower-level Sudanese.
The Obama administration has a more favorable attitude toward the ICC, although it is reviewing whether it should re-sign the treaty and seek Senate ratification.
“It is in our country’s interest that the most heinous of criminals, like the perpetrators of the genocide in Darfur, are held accountable,” said Mr. Chang, the National Security Council spokesman.
At the same time, he said, Mr. Obama, as commander in chief, “wants to make sure that [U.S.] troops have maximum protection” against politically motivated indictments.
The president “will consult thoroughly across the whole government, including with the military, and also examine the full track record of the court, before reaching a decision on how to move forward,” Mr. Chang said.
John Prendergast, a former African affairs adviser to Mr. Clinton, said, “We certainly don’t have to capitulate to the Chicken Little theory that just because the ICC is issuing this warrant there has to be necessarily a deterioration of the situation in Darfur. The response of the [Sudanese] government is completely in play right now. It will be largely dependent on the international reaction.”
Mr. Prendergast, who runs the Enough Project aimed at ending violence and genocide in Sudan, said failure to arrest Gen. Bashir would embolden the Sudanese “to continue with their agenda, which is to militarily crush their opposition.”
“Part of the reason there is no resolution in Sudan is because there has been no accountability,” he said. “If we take accountability off the table again, they will put that in their pocket and continue with their policy of divide and destroy.”
Under the ICC charter, the U.N. Security Council is empowered to defer the indictment for a year at a time, for as long as it likes. African and Muslim blocs have quietly petitioned the council to defer Gen. Bashir’s arrest warrant, despite strong ICC support from European and Latin American ambassadors.
China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, import large amounts of oil from Sudan. The 52-nation African Union, newly led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, also wants a delay of the warrant.
But deferral would require nine votes from the 15-member body and could be vetoed by any of the five permanent members: the U.S., Britain, France, China or Russia.
“It’s on track to go ahead,” Mr. de Waal said.
• Betsy Pisik reported from the United Nations in New York.