The decision by the United Nations Security Council to send war-crimes suspects from the Darfur region of Sudan to the new International Criminal Court (ICC) is an important victory for human rights. Even the United States, which has been implacable in its opposition to the ICC, agreed to the final resolution. Now it is incumbent on the government of Sudan to cooperate with the tribunal, which means the U.N. must demand compliance with its resolution.
For over two years, it has been reported that ethnic cleansing has been going on in the Darfur region of Sudan. The victims are black Africans; the victimizers are Arab militias called the janjaweed. The Arab-dominated government of Sudan admits it has armed the militias and given them air support, but only so that they could fight a secessionist movement launched in February 2003. The government denies that the janjaweed are engaged in ethnic cleansing, or that they are guilty of killing, raping and looting.
Most international observers, including the U.N., think otherwise. As many as 300,000 people are believed to have lost their lives in the conflict, either because of violence or because of hunger or disease. The U.N. estimates that as many as 2.4 million more have been left homeless. Some observers have gone so far as to call the actions “genocide.”
The world has an institution to deal with such monstrosities. A treaty setting up the ICC was negotiated in 1998, and it received the requisite number of ratifications to establish the court in 2002. Resort to the court has been blocked largely by the opposition of the U.S. Although the U.S. originally signed the treaty, the Bush administration later withdrew its endorsement, arguing that the court could be used for the political prosecution of U.S. citizens. As a result — and because the world has been mercifully free of such horrific situations — the ICC has languished.
The continuing killing in the Sudan forced action. Negotiations between the U.S. and other key nations produced an agreement that exempted individuals from countries not party to the ICC treaty from prosecution by the court (as long as they were part of a U.N. mission). That compromise allowed the U.N. Security Council to vote 11-0 with four abstentions — Algeria, Brazil, China and the U.S. — to send the dossiers on 51 war-crimes suspects to the ICC for trial.
The compromise ends an ugly dilemma for the U.S. It has been quick to condemn the Sudanese government for its behavior; former Secretary of State Colin Powell called the situation genocide. Yet Washington’s hostility to the ICC has prevented the U.S. from doing anything more than that. It originally argued for an ad hoc tribunal to hear the cases, as is occurring with the trials of individuals charged with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. That proposal was rejected. After intense negotiations, the compromise was agreed last month.
While the U.S. is the most vocal opponent of the ICC, China has been equally reluctant to push for sanctions against Sudan. Beijing worries about setting a precedent for international action against a government that violates the rights of its citizens. China has also signed several agreements to buy Sudanese oil and is eager for more. Blocking U.N. action is one way to win the favor of the Sudanese government.
Now the question is whether the Sudanese government will comply. The government has rejected the resolution as interference in its domestic affairs, saying it will interfere with the Darfur peace process. In fact, the readiness of the Khartoum government to hand over war-crimes suspects would only increase its credibility and leverage in peace talks. Reportedly, the government in Khartoum plans to try several officials at home as a way to avoid handing them over to the ICC. That dodge should not be permitted.
The U.N. must demand compliance. In addition to the war-crimes resolution, the Security Council has voted to dispatch a 10,000-plus member peace force to support a peace agreement already signed with southern rebels and to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on individuals who commit war crimes or break a ceasefire. Neither measure is enough to hurt the people who have committed these crimes. The peace force is too small to match the janjaweed militias. The perpetrators need not travel and most of their assets are at home.
Despite its shortcomings, the U.N. decision is important. It sends a signal that war criminals must account for their actions. Some will claim that the threat is too distant to be credible, but the steady stream of defendants to the Yugoslav tribunal is proof that memories are long. The ICC provides the victims with a forum. At last, it is getting used.
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