Sudan: differences of opinion

It’s interesting to listen to the different views of those who have lived in Sudan and those who have not, when discussing what should be done about the country.

At a conference this morning on complementarity – a wonderful word that basically means, if a country can’t be bothered to do anything about war crimes, then the International Criminal Court (ICC) will – I listened to a captivating talk by Sarah Nouwen from the University of Cambridge, who, I am told, lived in Khartoum pretty much the same time as I did.

I tried to stop myself, but I found myself nodding along to pretty much everything she said.

Of particular interest were her views on what impact the ICC ruling has had on Sudan. She shared similar thoughts to me when she suggested that, prior to that fateful indictment, there was a very real chance that Bashir might have decided, after twenty years in power, to step down. (This is of course a contentious issue, with much disagreement – I myself, however, think that Bashir could have been persuaded to retire).

Now, of course, there is no chance he will step down. The election next year (if it takes place – and, judging from hostilities in the South, this is not a given) will be a farce. The government never really had much enthusiasm for working towards a solution to the Darfur crisis (thank the NGOs for that, who meant the government never needed to lift a finger), and now it has even less. Basically, Bashir has no incentive to do anything any more.

In his mind, the international community is out to get him – so why make the effort and just be frustrated all the time.

Up went the posters around Khartoum and neighbouring cities, explaining how the ICC is all a Western conspiracy in order to bring Sudan to its knees. And people started to believe him.

So the conclusion I draw from all of this, as I have said previously in this journal, is that politics has to work hand-in-hand with international justice.

Following this presentation, I had a chat with someone of a different opinion. Since this was simply an informal coffee chat, I won’t give the name. But, basically, he was saying that the court just can’t get involved in politics – otherwise it would make the whole system of justice (international or otherwise) a farce. Why, for example, should Sudan be given any different treatment from Uganda or from the Congo? A war crime is a war crime is a war crime.

A very valid point apart from one thing, of course. The ICC simply doesn’t have the resources to prosecute all crimes that it is notified of (and will possibly have even less if the budget proposal for next year gets approved), so it needs to make very subjective decisions about who to go after and who not to.

Of course, the fellow had a perfectly sensible viewpoint. If justice is to mean anything, it must be across the board. But at the same time, there is also the need for political considerations – and this should be done through the Security Council. What is needed is for the two bodies to work slightly more closely together, and to recognise that these “legal” decisions have wide-reaching “political” implications that can cause unnecessary suffering, which the ICC says it wants to end.

Needless to say, the guy I spoke to had not lived in Sudan.

It is just fascinating to see how different opinions can be shaped according to whether you have an internal or external view of the country.

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