In praise of international law

From my comfortable abode in The Hague, it seems that all is not well with Sudan. In fact, I’d say that things are looking decidedly dicey for the country’s already precarious future. It didn’t have to be this way. If Juba and Khartoum weren’t behaving like a couple of spoilt toddlers, throwing a tantrum over who should get to play with a favourite toy, then the future of both sides might actually be looking a little more prosperous.

North Sudan’s economy is suffering terribly, perhaps more than first appearances might suggest.

South Sudan is arguably the poorest country in the world. It has a great deal of oil wealth trapped beneath its land, but still lacks the technical competence to get to it let alone export it.

The two countries would have fared much better off if they could just get on.

It is not really my place to talk about the brewing troubles in Sudan. I am not on the ground and other folk are capturing the mood in the country much more aptly than I could. (Except to say, perhaps, that from my long experience of Sudan and from all that I am reading, things do not look good.)

No, what I really want to talk about is international justice – and how, this time, South Sudan has very much crossed the line.

I want to make this point as a way of countering the ridiculous justification that is being made, from some quarters, for South Sudan’s unacceptably aggressive behaviour towards Heglig.

There are a handful of people, which I have followed ever since my love affair with Sudan began, that, no matter what Khartoum does, will never have a positive word to say about the regime. The government could make the most benevolent gesture and would still be criticised by these people, whilst Juba always comes out smelling of roses. These are people trapped in the ‘80s and ‘90s, refusing to move with the times. They often have reasonable points to make, but their inherent bias against Khartoum undercuts their credibility. So I will not give them coverage in this blog.

I have heard a great deal of insistence, over the past few days, that it is unclear as to which side Heglig lies on. I disagree with this assertion. In 2009, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) issued a ruling, indicating that the boundaries of Abyei should be redrawn so that Heglig would lie outside. It drew the border between the two countries along the border that was demarcated after independence, in 1956. That put the border just north of Abyei, but below Heglig. (Exactly whether Abyei lies in the North or South hasn’t yet been decided, but look on a map from 1956 and you’ll see that Heglig is just north of the border). I wrote an article on this some years ago, which you can find here.

But all of this is somewhat beside the point. Even if you fundamentally disagree with the interpretation of the PCA that Heglig lies within the territory of North Sudan, don’t use this ill-judged hypothesis as a way of justifying the aggressions of South Sudan. Since there is still some uncertainty about the issue, the international community should condemn any act of aggression in the region.

One cannot simply lash out at Khartoum all the time – though I fully accept that its misdeameanours are many – and let South Sudan get away with whatever it pleases.

That’s not international justice.

That’s Western justice.


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