Posted by: sean | March 15, 2009

Sudan: the center cannot hold

I’ve been wanting to write about the ICC arrest warrant for Sudanese President Bashir for a while now, but I’ve been busy with other things and have had limited internet access. The ICG has put out a statement about the warrant, calling it “a welcome and crucial step towards challenging the impunity that has worsened conflict in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan.”

As usual, this sort of action brings up the question of justice versus peace, which is always a difficult one. Those who support the warrant, like the ICG, dance around the implications of this international pressure:

It will force the ruling majority, the National Congress Party (NCP), to recognise that international efforts to prosecute those responsible for atrocities in Darfur cannot be readily evaded. This realisation may bring into the open simmering tensions within the highest levels of the NCP over the strategy and tactics pursued by the regime’s leadership in recent years. Increasingly there are those within the senior ranks of the NCP who believe that Bashir’s policy of confrontation with Sudan’s peripheral regions (such as Darfur, Kordofan, Eastern and Southern Sudan) has been counterproductive, and will lead to much greater destabilisation and international isolation. Still, Bashir and his security apparatus are entrenched in their positions, and continue to claim that the ICC is a tool of those seeking “regime change” in Sudan.

… Given internal tensions within the regime, the indictment itself may provoke change. Bashir’s delegitimisation in the eyes of both external actors and the Sudanese population may empower those opposed to the security-focused approach of the NCP hardliners. The prospects of Bashir’s isolation and even removal are real, but unlikely. The more likely outcome is that he will remain in power with no prospect of ending up before the ICC any time soon.

This ICG statement talks a little bit about “internal tensions within the regime,” yet discounts the idea that this might be a tool for regime change. Let’s be honest here, the regime in Khartoum doesn’t exactly have a reputation for responding to international pressure by getting its act together and curtailing human rights abuses. Generally, Khartoum stalls for time and then uses proxies to punish its domestic enemies. So while I don’t doubt that those who have issued the arrest warrant are interested in justice, I don’t think that that precludes a desire for regime change.

The question, then, is how will Khartoum react to this pressure. Bashir had already said that he would expel NGOs and humanitarian organizations if the ICC proceeded with the warrant, and so far, he’s been true to his word. What else might happen? Of course, it’s clear that other members of the ruling party might stage a military coup, in concert with Darfuri groups and the support of the SPLM, which is why it’s understandable why Bashir sees the pressure from the ICC as a Western attempt to topple him.

Some were surprised to see that Turabi was released from prison the other day, but despite his attempts to paint himself as a wise reformer, we mustn’t forget the role he played in bringing the current regime to power or the hardline Islamist stance that he’s known for, including hosting al-Qaeda in the 1990s. It’s likely then that Bashir’s move to release Turabi is less a concession to international pressure than a threat to release the Islamists who might be seen as a less savory replacement by powerbrokers in western capitals.

So we know that Bashir is unlikely to turn himself in to the ICC to be held accountable for war crimes in Darfur. So the international community should ask itself what it wants to happen in Sudan. Is it enough for the violence to stop in Darfur? Can Bashir be trusted not to use similar genocidal methods when problems arise again in the South or in Kordofan or the Nuba? Probably not. So if regime change is the outcome that the ICC is hoping for, then this warrant might work; however, regime change will most likely be sloppy and violent, and a change in government may be come at the price of expanded violence in Sudan’s periphery.

There’s another complication with such pressure on Bashir, which is the possibility that Darfuri groups may decide that they would be better off waiting until elections in 2011 when the south is likely to vote for secession and North-South hostilities are likely to reignite. Then Khartoum, which has traditionally used Darfuri proxies to put down rebels in the South, will find that it needs Darfur a lot more. This will put Darfuris in a much stronger negotiating position, since they can always threaten to join the impending civil war on the side of the South, which might entice groups in the Nuba and Kordofan to rise up against the central government. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

It’s hard to have much optimism for Sudan these days, since all prospects seem ugly and violent, and it’s hard to imagine a peaceful resolution to the country’s structural problems. That being said, the status-quo isn’t exactly an appealing option either.

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