Earlier this week, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, the current President of Sudan. According to the ICC, al-Bashir is wanted on suspicion of “being criminally responsible . . . for directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property,” constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC has not accused al-Bashir of genocide, as many human rights activists have demanded.
The warrant, which makes al-Bashir the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, has sparked sharp debates in the international community. The government of Sudan responded to the warrant by accusing the ICC of being a tool of neocolonialism. China has requested that the United Nations Security Council suspend the warrant, a course of action supported by Russia. The African Union has described the move as unhelpful. Jean Ping, the Chair of the African Union, commented, “What we see is that international justice seems to be applying its fight against impunity only to Africa as if nothing were happening elsewhere, (such as) in Iraq, Gaza, Colombia or in the Caucasus. Issues of peace are so important that justice must take them into account in Sudan just as elsewhere.”
The U.S. government has been supporting the ICC’s efforts to prosecute al-Bashir, providing information to the court despite efforts by the Bush administration to limit the influence of the ICC with respect to U.S. nationals.
The ICC’s warrant for al-Bashir has been the subject of much debate in the blogosphere. At the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman poses the provocative question, “Is the Bashir arrest warrant a good thing?” At SSRC, Alex de Waal argues that the ICC should not have indicted al-Bashir in the first place.
The current standoff illustrates the real limits of international law, particularly international humanitarian law. While there seems to be a common agreement that human rights should be protected, there remains significant disagreement over the scope of those rights. Are human rights universal or culturally specific? And even if we can reach agreement on the universality of human rights, should the ICC have universal jurisdiction (the ability to prosecute national of any country for violations of international law)? These questions remain controversial—just witness the U.S.’s demand that its nationals be exempted from the ICC’s otherwise universal jurisdiction.