16 August 2008

Tough choice over Sudanese President

By Liam Carroll

The United Nations has been raising the alarm about the multiple conflicts in and around Sudan for some time now, but a recent attempt to indict the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes has raised new concerns about how these conflicts may be resolved. The multiple hostilities, which include two high casualty conflicts in Sudan and related conflicts in Chad and Uganda, all involve the Sudanese President and his attempts to hold Africa’s largest country together through military force.

A fierce debate is now raging through the international community about whether the pursuit of the Sudanese President for war crimes will help resolve the inter-connected conflicts in the region, or whether antagonism to the process will see the Sudanese government withdraw from several important negotiations. President Bashir is of course infuriated by the charges and has threatened to withdraw co-operation in the peace process with the Darfurian rebel groups in west Sudan unless the charges are dropped, and he also warned that the peace process with south Sudan could also collapse if the indictment is pursued.

The conflict in Darfur, however, is nowhere close to resolution and some international diplomats are arguing that the threat to withdraw co-operation is hollow given that the Sudanese government has demonstrated little commitment to the process anyway. Also, Bashir's government in the north of Sudan has failed to fulfill its obligations in the peace process with the breakaway southern Sudanese. The recently renewed fighting over disputed territory between the north and south has come in the wake of Bashir's failure to implement a number of important measures from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which was signed by the two sides in 2005. In this context some diplomats feel that Bashir cannot be trusted to be part of the solution, while others point out that he retains the power to force both conflicts to deteriorate further should he so choose.

The war with the south Sudanese has also drawn in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from Uganda who have been attacking vulnerable communities in south Sudan, allegedly with assistance from Bashir. The Ugandan government, which is trying to bring its own internal conflict with the LRA to an end, has charged Bashir's government with allowing the LRA to find refuge in Sudan instead of forcing them to leave. The peace process in Uganda then, which came about through the defeat of the LRA in Uganda, has now stalled, due partly to the LRA's ability to find refuge in Sudan, with alleged complicity from Bashir and the Sudanese government.

A similar scenario is playing itself out between the Sudanese government and another neighbour, Chad. In recent months the capital of Chad, N'djamena, has been attacked by rebel groups seeking to overthrow the government there. The government of Chad has blamed Sudan for supporting the rebels, although by way of a counter charge Sudan has blamed Chad for supporting rebels in Darfur. By way of confirmation a cease-fire was recently brokered when representatives from Chad and Sudan recently met in Libya, although reports from the region suggest that the situation remains fragile.

The decision to pursue the prosecution of President Bashir is still being considered by the International Criminal Court, although if it does proceed the UN Security Council retains the power to indefinitely postpone prosecution should it so choose. The big question for diplomats at the UN, therefore, rests on whether or not they believe Bashir can be a viable partner in the pursuit of peace. The manner in which he has pursued a divide and rule strategy in Darfur however, by offering stolen land and privilege to the more powerful rebel leaders in return for power-sharing arrangements, suggest that if any peace is achieved in Darfur, it is unlikely to be a just one.

Additionally, to allow Bashir to escape accountability for some of the worst atrocities committed anywhere in recent years would seriously degrade efforts to hold others to account for similar crimes elsewhere. The opponents of the process have also failed to take into account Bashir’s weak political standing. Sudanese political commentators have suggested that the NCP may find it expedient to ditch Bashir if they feel his divide and rule strategy has run its course. Despite years of conflict, and with much blood shed, the strategy is failing to hold Sudan together and the NCP may decide that the non-violent political process may offer better prospects for achieving national unity. There is then much to be gained from pursuing the ICC prosecution, but there are serious risks involved; let us hope that fate in Sudan will, for a change, come down on the side of justice.