By Sophie van Leeuwen
The ICC is like a harmless puppy without state cooperation. That’s probably what Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir thought when he decided to visit South Africa. He left the country while a Pretoria court was about to issue an arrest warrant.
Bashir’s airplane took off and slowly disappeared into the blue South African sky on Monday. Is Bashir in the plane or not? He was. And the whole world was watching.
“I’m very disappointed and sad,” says Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program of Human Right Watch (HRW). “It’s a huge step back for South Africa. The government completely supports Bashir. To let him go is a wrong decision.”
“It’s a big al-Bashir show,” says Dov Jacobs, assistant professor in international law at Leiden University and blogger. According to him, the effect of this event will be quite devastating for the Hague court.
“South Africa is one of the most advanced countries when we talk about the rule of law, about the respect of international law. If the South African government lets him go, this is not good for the International Criminal Court.”
Bashir’s visit was provocative, says Chervine Ostadeh of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, one of the many civil society organizations that have been campaigning for his arrest.
“He wants to show he’s stronger than the International Criminal Court,“ says Ostadeh. “Being a state member of the ICC, South Africa has the obligation to cooperate. Despite international pressure, South Africa remained silent.”
By leaving the country, Bashir ignored an earlier domestic court ruling on Sunday that stated he should not leave South Africa. Since the ICC has no police force, arresting suspects is complicated, especially on African soil where the Court is often accused of “neocolonialism”.
The president of Sudan is subject to two ICC arrest warrants. He’s accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity that he allegedly committed in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
HRW praises the efforts of the Pretoria court that asked for Bashir’s arrest. Keppler: “This is the first time any kind of order has been issued against a sitting president. It’s a significant step. Bashir can’t go back to South Africa. He slipped away today but may very well be arrested tomorrow.”
He was in South Africa to attend the African Union Summit. South Africa argued they had no choice but to let the president come because of the AU meeting. If you host an AU meeting you have to grant immunity to all acting state leaders, a government lawyer stated.
Cartoonist: Roland Polman