Reports out of Sudan indicate that President Omar al-Bashir will not run for the Presidency of the country in the next elections, set to take place 4 years from now. Bashir, who has been indicted by the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, handily won another five-year mandate last April.
For many, four years from now is almost laughable. Yet, as a gesture, it remains curious. Why would Bashir, perhaps the world’s most wanted man, announce that he was going to resign?
Most of the debate on the subject, however, has considered whether Bashir’s decision has come in reaction to the protests sweeping the Arab world. Just last week a group of students in Khartoum protested against the government and clashed against police. Interestingly, their slogans harkened to protests in the region. Students shouted: “Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan together as one.”
Opposition leaders reacted to Bashir’s decision by declaring that it was the result of popular unrest in the region. Mubarak al-Fadl, the leader of the opposition Umma party declared that “this is very much to do with the tsunami of people power against dictatorship in the area.”
Is this convincing? Not entirely. If the “tsunami” of regional unrest was threatening to the regime in Khartoum, presumably Bashir would step down earlier than four years from now. The government need only look at the case of Egypt to see that, in the face of popular movements, Mubarak’s initial decision to step down in September was not enough and indeed fuelled popular sentiments against him. Further, the student protests in Khartoum that alluded to the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt paled in comparison, with an estimated 100 participants in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square.
But what about the fact that Bashir is a man wanted by the International Criminal Court? There are a few interesting things to note here.
Proponents of international criminal justice often argue that issuing an arrest warrant for an individual will isolate or marginalize them. Individuals who have committed human rights violations, the reasoning goes, cannot possibly be interested in peace and so, in the words of Stephen Stedman, they are “spoilers” of peace. Marginalizing spoilers is critical to successfully negotiating and implementing peace. This isolating power of indictments is meant to work at both the domestic and international level.
The isolating effects of the arrest warrant for Bashir has been a mixed bag. There is some evidence that he has been marginalized internationally. This past summer, Marlise Simmons wrote of the diplomatic dance where:
Leaders have maneuvered to stay out of photographs with him, dashed away from an official lunch to avoid sitting next to him and gone as far as canceling an entire international meeting to keep Mr. Bashir at bay.
Further, as Xavier Rauscher points out at The International Jurist, an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit was moved to Ethiopia from Kenya (an ICC state party) because of pressure on Kenya to arrest Bashir.
At the same time, however, Bashir has been able to visit numerous states on official visits, including ICC member states Chad and Kenya, much to the ire of the ICC and its supporters. Further, if domestic isolation was a goal of the arrest warrants, to date it has been nothing short of an abysmal failure. Despite initial reports suggesting that Bashir might be overthrown, Bashir hasn’t faced anything close to domestic opposition that would ultimately isolate him to the point of being arrested. Additionally, critics have voiced concern that the intention of domestic isolation amounts to regime change through law.
Some believe that the arrest warrants for Bashir had precisely the opposite effect on isolating the Sudanese President. According to Rob Crilly, author of Saving Darfur – Everyone’s Favourite African War, prior to the arrest warrant against him, Bashir was preparing to retire. When the arrest warrant came, however, he decided to re-entrench his power. This is particularly troubling for those who believe that Bashir must be removed from power and that the ICC’s arrest warrants can contribute to that goal. If true, it would seem that the timing of the ICC’s indictment resulted in the unintended consequence of Bashir remaining in power.
So, why would Bashir announce that he was stepping down in four years now? Indeed, the announcement seems odd given that Bashir has very strong incentives to stay in power.
Khartoum and the United States have been locked into their own diplomatic dance in recent months. The US and Sudan have been in constant negotiations, in particular to ensure that the recent referendum, a key element of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, would be conducted peacefully.
The US has gone to lengths to provide enough carrots to ensure the peaceful split of Sudan. It has offered to remove Sudan from the list of states who sponsor terrorism, apparently regardless of the situation in Darfur. Sudan, in turn, demanded that economic sanctions be lifted. The bargaining between the states was clear. One official declared: “We have delivered what we promised. We now want all sanctions to be lifted.”
Most controversially, however, have been rumours that the US and other Western states were prepared to “reward” Sudan’s “good behaviour” in allowing a largely (but not entirely) peaceful separation of the south by freezing the ICC’s arrest warrant for a year. Deferring an arrest warrant is possible if the UN Security Council agrees to do it, under Article 16 of the Rome Statute.
While the US is not a state party of the ICC, its position on the UN Security Council and its diplomatic and military muscle have clearly affected the capacity to enforce the ICC’s arrest warrants. Further, P.J. Crowley, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, felt compelled to address the allegations. Of course, even if the US had considered deferring the arrest warrant against Bashir, they would never do so publicly. Imagine the fury of the George Clooney’s, Mia Farrows and Save Darfurs of America, not to mention the sense of hypocrisy many would feel towards President Obama. Nevertheless, if there is any truth to this narrative, than this is perhaps the single most stark occasion in negotiations have considered trading justice for peace.
Given these recent dynamics, it’s difficult to believe that Bashir has not received some assurances that one, he can now declare, with confidence and security, that he is stepping down and two, that when he does, he will not be at risk of being immediately arrested. Indeed, it seems to be, at the very least, a distinct possibility that Bashir’s announcement is actually part of the ongoing negotiations between Sudan and the US. One member of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) tellingly said:
“But [Bashir] is not under pressure… This is not in the context of the change that is happening in the Arab world. It is happening because of the political strategy of the NCP to broaden participation.”
Not under pressure from regional change, but perhaps under pressure from the US to reform and democratize. Given how long Bashir has been in power and the international pressure for his arrest, it seems absurd to think he would otherwise relinquish power.
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