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Recent events in Sudan and the ICC: The Prosecutor v. Omar Al Bashir

Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, president of Sudan, sits in the Plenary Hall of the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 12th African Union Summit Feb. 2, 2009. The assembly endorsed the communique, issued by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, to defer the process initiated by the International Criminal Court to indict Bashir. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released)

Article by Naz Khan,

ICC Jurisdiction


In Resolution 1564, the UN Security Council (UNSC) requested the UN Secretary General to investigate reports of gross violations of humanitarian and human rights laws in the Darfur region of Sudan between 2003 and 2008. The International Commission established that the Sudanese government, along with Rapid Support Forces (RSF) or Janjaweed militias had carried out indiscriminate attacks on civilians including mass rapes, killings, torture, enforced disappearances and the destruction of villages on a systematic basis throughout Darfur; however, concluding the evidence of the crime of genocide was insufficient. These crimes were therefore referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) who issued an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir, the incumbent President of Sudan.


The case raised several issues of contention: first the issue of an arrest warrant for an incumbent head of state was contentious; at the same time the African Union (AU) requested a deferral of the case and established a High-Level Panel on Darfur, seeking to find an African solution to bring about accountability and reconciliation in the region. Charges against Al-Bashir included crimes against humanity, war crime and genocide based upon perpetration by means, meaning that Al-Bashir had committed these crimes indirectly through the army and the militia. ICC jurisdiction in this case is established by virtue of a UNSC referral, since Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC. Article 13, however, enables the UNSC to refer a case to the ICC, pursuant to its powers under Chapter VII UN Charter.


Domestic Charges

Instead of being surrendered to the ICC to face charges on international crimes, Al-Bashir has been in the custody of the military who instigated a coup in April 2019. Al-Bashir now faces prosecution in Sudan for corruption, after being found with $113million in foreign currency in grain sacks at his residence. Prosecutors in Sudan have informed Al-Bashir that he faces charges of “possession foreign currency and acquiring suspicious and illicit wealth”. Al-Bashir faces prosecution for being in violation of an emergency decree that he himself imposed following protests to his rule in which he imposed a state of emergency and make it illegal to carry more than $3,000 in foreign currency.


Concerns were raised however, about the potential for Al-Bashir to receive a fair trial in Sudan or the possibility of him facing charges for the most serious charges against him, for which he faces up to 10 years in prison. Further investigations could lead to charges for money laundering, financing of terrorism or the killing of up to 100 protestors – which could lead to a potential death penalty under Sudanese criminal law. The great difficulty would be therefore that such charges might involve a long prison sentence or potential death penalty for Al-Bashir, who would never then be placed on trial in the ICC for the mass atrocities and the deaths of around 300,000 people, including allegations that he had overseen an attempt to wipe out part of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit communities.


A Massive Blow to the ICC?


The ICC has faced numerous criticisms throughout its 20-year history, for its long delays, weak management and ineffective prosecutions, including interferences with witnesses, and in particular from the nations of the AU for its disproportionate emphasis upon situations in Africa. The OTP currently investigating ten situations in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Darfur, the Central African Republic (CAR), Kenya, Libya, Côte D’Ivoire, Mali, another situation in CAR, in Georgia and Burundi (since 2017). This African focus has led to numerous accusations against the court of double-standards, neo-colonialism and ‘white justice’, which makes the ICC no more than a criminal court for Africa, while failing to address war crimes in Iraq, or Afghanistan perpetrated by Western leaders. Such accusations have been growing over the past decade, with AU member states regularly threatening to withdraw en masse from the Rome Statute; South African announced its withdrawal in October 2016.


The Al-Bashir case has been symbolic of this diplomatic crisis between the AU and the ICC, the AU being early supporters of the ICC, while other States (notably permanent members of the Security Council: the United States and China) have never ratified the Rome Statute. African leaders have been highly critical of the indictment against Al-Bashir, with Jean Ping, chair-person of the AU’s Commission arguing that “international justice seems to be applying its fight against impunity on to African as if nothing were happening elsewhere – in Iraq, Gaza, Colombia or in the Caucasus. The AU adopted an official policy of non-cooperation with the ICC; arguing that the peace process in Sudan should take precedence over the ICC arrest warrant for Al-Bashir and claiming that as a head of state he enjoyed immunity to prosecution. This non-cooperation by the AU has also led to the collapse of the trial of the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in December 2014.


Non-cooperation has also been a feature of the failure of the ICC to obtain custody of Al-Bashir, who has travelled to Ethiopia, Chad, Malawi, the DRC, Nigeria, Kenya and South African, during the period of his arrest warrant; all of whom have failed to arrest and surrender Al-Bashir to the ICC, which is part of their obligation as parties to the Rome Statute.


In the light of the non-cooperation of African States with the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), it appears that the Al-Bashir case will be critical to the future of the ICC. If they do manage to prosecute the former Sudanese leader, this will show that they can overcome the lack of support from African countries and the AU in their lack of co-operation of the Court. At the present time, this appears unlikely, it seems most likely that Al-Bashir will be prosecuted in Sudan, but not for the most serious international crimes that he has been accused of, but most likely for more recent and relatively less-serious crimes committed during the recent protest in the country.