It is unlikely that last week’s decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to indict Mr. Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, on charges of war crimes has cost Mr. Bashir much sleep. The ICC cannot enforce the writ on its own, and Mr. Bashir has allies and friends around the world.

Still, Mr. Bashir’s reaction to the decision shows that the court’s assessment of his behavior is correct. More important, it is a critical decision that sets a historical precedent and reinforces the rule of idea that no one is above the law.

Rebels in the Darfur region of western Sudan have been fighting the government in Khartoum since 2003, claiming that they have been discriminated against and their lands exploited. That fight has pitted non-Arab groups of Darfur against the Arab-dominated government and vicious militias that it uses as proxies. International human rights groups estimate that at least 200,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and as many as 2.5 million more forced from their homes. The Sudanese government denies that it is using violent tactics or proxies, and it estimates the number of dead at “just” 10,000.

Months ago, a request for an indictment was brought before the ICC, a court set up in 2002 by international statute. The prosecutor charged Mr. Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity that included “murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring” large numbers of civilians and looting their property.

The court agreed that Mr. Bashir played an “essential role” in the murder, rape, torture, pillage and displacement of civilians in Darfur. But it also ruled that the prosecutor did not provide sufficient evidence of Mr. Bashir’s specific intent to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and thus the court could not charge him with genocide.

In response, Mr. Bashir organized street protests, denounced the court as a tool of Western colonialism (which he says is determined to take control of the country’s energy reserves) and, most significantly, kicked more than a dozen nongovernmental organizations out of the county, charging that they had provided the ICC with information on Mr. Bashir’s alleged crimes.

Those groups provide about 60 percent of the humanitarian assistance in Darfur. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on the Sudan government to “urgently reconsider” that decision since those organizations are “key to maintaining a lifeline to 4.7 million Sudanese people who receive aid in Darfur.” Without those groups, food and water will not be delivered, and health care and other essential services will be halted.

The impact of that decision has some groups challenging the wisdom of the ICC move. Members of the Arab League and the African Union had insisted that the move would undermine peace talks. Already, one rebel group in Darfur has said it will drop out of peace talks, arguing that Mr. Bashir is no longer a legitimate negotiator. Sudan’s neighbors worry that the charges harden Mr. Bashir against any negotiations, even as some human rights groups believe that the indictment is another tool that adroit diplomats can use to compel him to make a deal.

In fact, there is little chance Mr. Bashir will be brought to trial anytime soon. The court has no enforcement powers. There are thousands of U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan, but arresting the head of state is not part of their mandate. The Sudan will not hand him over – two other Sudanese, previously indicted by the court on war crimes charges, are still free — nor will other African leaders, who fear that such a precedent could someday be used against them.

Equally important, China, a major investor in Sudan and a holder of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, opposes the indictment out of concern for its investments, fear of instability in Sudan, and a deep and abiding reluctance to interfere in the internal affairs of states.

Nevertheless, the ICC decision is an important step forward in setting norms for government behavior. While it is not the first time a war-crimes court has issued a warrant against a sitting president, every decision that chips away at the notion that governments and heads of state enjoy absolute immunity for the most horrific and illegal policies is to be applauded.

Mr. Bashir not only has to worry about traveling to a country that is prepared to honor the ICC ruling, but he also must keep an eye on the men around him, who might be interested in serving him up to the authorities in exchange for a fresh start for Sudan with the international community. It is too late to undo what he is indicted for having committed, but the court’s decision will give others a reason to hesitate before following in his path.

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