UNITED NATIONS — An international tribunal on Wednesday issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the first time a sitting leader has been formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
By issuing the warrant related to the violence in Darfur, judges on the International Criminal Court (ICC) effectively have limited Gen. al-Bashir’s ability to travel outside Sudan.
Although the court itself has no power to enforce the warrant, the Sudanese leader can be arrested by governments that recognize the ICC or are willing to honor the warrant.
“He is suspected of being criminally responsible … for intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan,” ICC spokesman Laurence Blairon told reporters at the ICC courthouse in The Hague.
The warrant also says Gen. al-Bashir is suspected of responsibility for “murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property.”
Human rights activists, who long have expected the arrest warrant, were overjoyed with the court’s action, saying it is proves that even high-profile world leaders must be accountable for war crimes.
“The International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir provides an unprecedented opening, making Sudan’s prospects for peace riper than they have been in memory,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project.
In Khartoum, thousands of Sudanese flocked to the streets to carry flags and banners of support for the embattled president.
Gen. al-Bashir denies the war crimes accusations and refuses to deal with the court. Moreover, Sudan does not recognize its jurisdiction and refuses to arrest suspects. U.N. peacekeepers and other international agencies operating in Sudan have no mandate to implement the warrant, and Sudanese officials have warned them not to go outside their mandates.
The Sudanese army and government-supported militia called Janjaweed have attempted for six years to put down an insurgency by Darfur rebel groups.
At least 300,000 Darfuris have died in the violence or of starvation and disease; another 2.7 million have left their homes. Many of them have found shelter in bare-boned U.N.-administered camps in Chad, or near the Chad-Sudan border.
The arrest order makes it more difficult for U.N. diplomats and world leaders to conduct negotiations with Gen. al-Bashir, 65. U.N. and African Union peacekeepers in Sudan require Khartoum’s cooperation.
The head of U.N. peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, said he does not expect to withdraw or downsize the U.N. force in Darfur, where government-backed rebel groups have attacked peacekeeping troops.
The U.N. and African Union’s joint Mission in Sudan is now only two-thirds operational. Peacekeeping officials say they have new troops almost ready to hit the ground.
The French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres immediately ordered their staff out of Sudan because of concerns for their safety. Security also was elevated at diplomatic compounds and international facilities in Khartoum and Darfur.
Sudanese diplomats and Gen. al-Bashir himself repeatedly have said they will not seek reprisals against the peacekeepers or other humanitarian groups, but warn they “cannot stop the Sudanese people” if they choose to express their anger.
The case against Gen. al-Bashir was referred to the court by the U.N. Security Council. The United States, which supports the prosecution but does not accept the court’s universal jurisdiction, abstained on the resolution.
Despite the arrest warrant, the al-Bashir government is guaranteed a prominent pulpit in diplomatic settings: Sudan now holds the rotating presidency of the 134-nation Group of 77, meaning that Khartoum will represent the views of the developing world at conferences and meetings.
On April 27, 2007, the court issued arrest warrants for Sudanese State Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun and a Janjaweed militia leader, Ali Kosheib. Khartoum has refused to arrest and extradite either suspect.