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A Chance to Sway Sudan

Author: Michael J. Gerson, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow
February 13, 2009
The Washington Post


While a new administration is just getting started, history doesn't stop.

On Sudan and Darfur, President Obama's Africa team has begun a lengthy policy review and is mulling names for a special envoy. But an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity was reportedly approved by the International Criminal Court (ICC) this week. And the administration suddenly faces an unprecedented question: Can a hunted war criminal also be a partner in the Sudan peace process?

While in government, I was skeptical of the usefulness of ICC indictments in situations such as Sudan. Indictments are a blunt diplomatic instrument -- once imposed, they are almost impossible to withdraw in exchange for concessions. They leave a thug in a corner -- less likely to negotiate and more likely to lash out at humanitarian groups and civilians. A dictator with no options is dangerous.

But I have changed my mind in the case of Bashir. The traditional carrots and sticks of diplomacy have failed. For decades, the Sudanese regime has been masterful at using minor concessions and delaying tactics, playing allies who want oil and critics with short attention spans, to achieve its genocidal ends. Bashir would like nothing better than to play another round in this game. The ICC warrant provides an opportunity to change the rules, holding Bashir personally responsible for achieving massive improvements, or personally responsible for committing massive crimes.


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