The Message in Omar al-Bashir’s Cross

The political controversy that trailed the presence of Omar al-Bashir, Sudanese president, at the recent African Union, AU, conference in South Africa is not going away any time soon.

Half way through the four-day AU conference held in Johannesburg in June, al-Bashir surreptitiously flew out of South Africa to avoid being ensnared by the arrest order issued by a South African judge. The judicial order was prompted by instructions from the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, which has indicted the Sudanese leader for war crimes on alleged atrocities committed in the Darfur region. More than 300,000 people were killed in the Darfur crisis in conditions deemed genocidal.

For more than five years now the ICC, which was established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, has sought the arrest of al-Bashir every time he stepped away from his comfort zone in Sudan, where he has ruled since 1989.

Although independent from the United Nations, UN, system, the ICC even got support, this time around, from the UN leader Ban Ki Moon, who said that the ICC’s warrant for the arrest of al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes is a matter he takes “extremely seriously.”

But even that did not sway the South African authorities who looked the other way while al-Bashir sneaked out of the country.

“The conduct of the respondents to the extent that they have failed to take steps to arrest and detain the president of Sudan Omar al-Bashir is inconsistent with the constitution of the Republic of South Africa,” said the South African judge who issued his arrest order.

Recently, Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, ensured the issue will be on the front burner for awhile when it called for a full investigation into the government’s failure to arrest al-Bashir.

Reflecting on the decision not to bow to the court’s request, Max Du Plesis, South African writer, indicated that the country’s ruling party showed the middle finger to courts by aiding al-Bashir. “It is the closest post-apartheid South Africa has come to that much talked about concept of a constitutional crisis,” he affirmed.

The fact that he left before the heads of state began their conference was a clear indication that al-Bashir was clearly troubled by the furore over his presence in South Africa, which is among 120 nations that are signatories to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC.

Although he has found ways to dance around his travel restrictions, the ruckus that greeted his appearance in South Africa last month shows that the odds are stacked against al-Bashir who was recently re-elected for another term. The ICC arrest warrant now overshadows every trip he makes abroad. The Sudanese leader made two other trips earlier in the year to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The question now is will he be as lucky to escape another ICC-authorised bid for his arrest the next time he steps out of his country?

It is an uncomfortable position no leader of any country would love to face because it diminishes the relevancy of their leadership and the moral right to rule after human rights abuses.

Weighing in on the controversy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a statement released through his foundation said, “If the world is to become a fairer, more compassionate, tolerant and peaceful place it needed institutions like the ICC to hold those who abuse power to account.”

The Nobel prize winner and respected South African clergyman added that the world “needs a criminal court where all are held equally to account, regardless of their nation’s wealth, geographic location or particular history.”

With the way things are going al-Bashir may end up like Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, two former African leaders who have been indicted for crimes against humanity.

Taylor, the first head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II, is serving a 50-year jail term for encouraging the mutilation, rape and murder of victims by rebels in Sierra Leone during a conflict that lasted more than 11 years.

While Taylor is already serving his sentence, Gbagbo who has been held in The Hague since his transfer to the ICC’s detention unit four years ago, is facing four charges of crimes against humanity for murder, rape, inhumane acts and persecution related to the deadly violence that followed the controversial 2010 presidential poll in Ivory Coast. Early this year a court in Ivory Coast sentenced Gbagbo’s wife Simone to 20 years in prison for her role in the unrest.

From the predicament of al-Bashir, Taylor and Gbagbo the leadership lessons inherent here is that the era of iron-fisted leaders who rule with impunity and disregard for human rights can no longer be condoned.

While the ICC is resolute in its bid to bring al-Bashir to face an International court, it is hoped that this international body will apply the same fervor, which it has used in pursuing errant African leaders in efforts against leaders from other parts of the world who have clearly committed crimes against humanity. After all, the 1998 statutes that set up the ICC clearly states that the court was “established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.”

And this should apply to every continent on the globe. It doesn’t have to be different ICC strokes for different leaders worldwide who are culpable for crimes against humanity. By doing so, the organisation can show the world that it is not a racist organisation that inordinately picks on African leaders for opprobrium.

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Ben Edokpayi

Ben Edokpayi is a strategic communications consultant with more than 25 years experience in the USA and Nigeria. His most recent corporate assignment was as Media Relations Officer with the California State Compensation Insurance Fund.

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