This article was originally published at Open Canada.
After 30 years as president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir is out of power. It is difficult to overstate how remarkable it is to write those words. After four months of popular protests, Bashir has been deposed and, according to the Sudanese military, is currently in detention.
The question on the minds of observers is: what happens next? Who will replace Bashir and where will the former president end up? Could it be in The Hague to face justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC)?
Bashir has had arrest warrants issued against him for over a decade. In 2005, the United Nations Security Council referred the situation in Sudan’s Darfur region — where, under Bashir’s watch, hundreds of thousands were killed or displaced from their homes — to the ICC. Over the next four years, the court issued two arrest warrants against Bashir for the alleged crimes he is responsible for in Darfur. Collectively, the warrants charge him with the unholy trinity of the court’s core crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Unsurprisingly, Bashir has rejected the very premise of the ICC and, despite the arrest warrants, has been able to secure diplomatic support from various states around the world, as well as from the African Union, and travel abroad regularly — including to a number of ICC member-states.
Many hope that his luck has finally run out.
However, while recent events are undoubtedly remarkable and demonstrate the power of people coming together to demand change, the situation in Sudan remains precarious. Despite heaps of evidence, we often forget just how dangerous and volatile transitional contexts can be in the wake of the removal of a head of state. This is perhaps especially so when a state’s military subsequently takes over, which is currently the case in Sudan despite protestors clamouring for a civilian government.
Proponents of international criminal justice often believe that getting rid of a political leader will invariably lead to peace. But that is not enough. Getting rid of Bashir will rid Sudan of its figurehead, but not of a system that is replete with perpetrators of atrocities. The figures that are currently serving as Sudan’s ‘new’ leaders were core members of Bashir’s regime. They are not ‘nice guys’ with democratic or peace-loving credentials. As international justice expert Thijs Bouwknegt points out, the first to take over was the head of the military, General Awad Ibn Auf, who faced American sanctions from 2007 to 2017 and has been referenced at least five times in the warrants of arrest for Bashir, regarding his own alleged role in atrocities in Darfur. Auf has now stepped down and retired, but it remains unclear who will ultimately come out ‘on top’ in Sudan. It would be wrong to assume that they will invariably be proponents of international justice and human rights.
Right now, the safety of civilians needs to be prioritized. There remains a real risk of civil strife and potentially civil war.
When it comes to the ICC and its interventions, there is also an ever-present need to see the forest for the trees. Observers should avoid over-emphasizing the role or impact of the ICC simply because it is what observers and proponents of the court focus on. According to Alex de Waal, perhaps the most important writer and researcher on Sudanese politics and history outside of the country:
One thing that the opposition has not demanded is that Mr Bashir be handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he faces prosecution for crimes committed in Darfur 15 years ago. For them, the fate of the country is bigger than bringing one man to justice.
This is not to say that the ICC or its warrants against Bashir are irrelevant. On the contrary, reports suggest that a council set up to elect — or, more likely, select — someone as interim leader of the country is apparently looking for someone specifically not wanted by the ICC. But it is important to stress that the ICC has had a minimal impact on developments on the ground in Sudan to date.