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Stopping Bashir: Obama's "Never Again" Moment of Truth

Authors: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, and Kaysie Brown
March 23, 2009

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During the presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama called the crisis in Darfur a "stain on our souls," promising vigorous action to save its victims if elected. But since taking office he has been more cautious than President George W. Bush. Overwhelmed by the global economic downturn and internally divided over this issue, his administration has been slow to react to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's most recent provocation: expelling humanitarian aid groups in retaliation for the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant against him for crimes against humanity.

Bashir's defiance is staggering--the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations can't even touch an eyelash of his, or so he says--and his intent is clear. By expelling aid workers in Darfur, he hopes to divide the international community and blackmail the UN Security Council into deferring the ICC's indictment. This gambit creates a moment of truth for the Obama administration.

Beyond resisting calls for a deferral, Washington must regain the initiative it has lost to Bashir. Although President Obama has appointed a special envoy for Darfur, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly promised to hold Bashir accountable for every innocent death, the president has postponed more forceful action pending a comprehensive review of Sudan policy.

Unfortunately, the crisis is not standing still. The president must begin dictating rather than merely responding to events. The boldest way to do so is to declare Bashir beyond the pale, launch a full-bore campaign to isolate him diplomatically, and ultimately bring him to justice.

Some, positing a trade-off between peace and justice, recommend deferring the ICC indictment, as permitted under the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the court. Proceeding with Bashir's prosecution, they warn, will jeopardize prospects for peace in Darfur and the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the long-running civil war between northern and southern Sudan in 2005.

This argument represents a triumph of hope over experience. It flies in the face of what we know about and can expect from Bashir and exaggerates the prospects of peace in either place without regime change in Khartoum.

In fact, support for Bashir's arrest and prosecution reflects realism, not idealism. The United States has three national interests in Sudan: stopping mass atrocities in Darfur; ensuring stable peace between northern and southern Sudan; and preserving intelligence cooperation with Khartoum in the struggle against global terrorism. The best way to advance all three is to arrest Bashir and to transfer him to The Hague, not to bargain with a known killer who has no record of keeping his word.

Bashir is committed to total victory in Darfur, where five thousand people already die each month, according to ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. That number could now surge, as one million victims lose access to food aid and medicine. An indicator of Bashir's callousness toward Darfur is his 2006 appointment of the genocidal Ahmed Haroun, former minister of the interior, as minister for humanitarian affairs. This is akin to naming Joseph Goebbels as head of concentration camp welfare. †Haroun was indicted by the ICC in 2007 for crimes against humanity and war crimes, after which Bashir appointed him to lead an investigation into human rights abuses in Darfur.

Nor can Bashir be counted on as a faithful custodian of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Since its signature in 2005, Khartoum has worked to undermine its terms, fomenting violence in the strategic oil-rich region of Abyei and sabotaging the planned referendum on southern independence, scheduled for 2011. This includes delaying steps necessary for a functioning national election this year. It is naÔve to imagine that Bashir, freed of indictment, would suddenly live up to his side of the bargain.

Finally, Washington cannot hope to maintain an effective intelligence-sharing arrangement with Khartoum if Bashir remains in power. Such a relationship is critical, given ongoing threats from al-Qaeda affiliated groups in North Africa and the Horn. Unfortunately, the steady deterioration in Sudan-U.S. relations jeopardizes such cooperation.

A hard line from Washington is essential to stiffen the resolve of wobbly members of the international community, and to embolden fence-sitters within Sudan's ruling National Congress Party who may be in a position to depose Bashir. But those individuals are unlikely to help remove him unless the world community stands firm on the ICC indictment, ratcheting up pressure on a regime whose days they make clear are numbered.

President Obama can take five concrete steps to regain the initiative in the face of Basir's intransigence. First, he should openly dismiss any possibility of Security Council deferment and insist that any country that is able to do so should remand Bashir to the court. This includes U.S. ally Qatar, host of the 2009 Arab League summit, which Bashir plans to attend. Second, Obama should engage Beijing on tighter UN sanctions for Bashir's criminal regime, which by its actions is now endangering long-term Chinese interests in Sudan. Third, he should welcome the African Union's creation of a new Darfur panel under former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has promised that "war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other abuses will be punished resolutely." Fourth, he should commit U.S. logistical support for the UN peacekeeping mission and jointly with Europeans, declare a no-fly zone in Darfur enforced by Western warplanes. Finally, he should shore up the ICC's global standing, by signaling willingness to consider eventual U.S. membership, pending a bipartisan review of its performance and adequate safeguards.

As Pulitzer Prize winner and current National Security Council official Samantha Power observes, mass atrocities present the United States with a "problem from hell." †But it is not one we can wish away. Rather than negotiating with Bashir, Washington needs to lead an all-out push on the Security Council and among Arab and African countries to isolate the Sudanese leader and ultimately remove him from power.

Stewart Patrick and Kaysie Brown are director and deputy director, respectively, of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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