Over the years, I have had many conversations with survivors of genocide. A recurring theme is the need for official recognition that a terrible injustice was inflicted on their people and a means to bring the perpetrators to account.
It is five years since Sudan's president, Field Marshall Bashir, was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur (he was subsequently also indicted for acts of genocide). The long-suffering people of Darfur took strength from international recognition that Bashir and his cronies had committed systematic ethnic cleansing. But five years on, as the daily persecution and bombing in Sudan continues, they can find little comfort in the world's indifference to their plight.
Instead, Sudan's leaders have extended their ethnic cleansing to other marginalised regions, bombing unarmed civilians with impunity. Despite UN sanctions and travel bans, Bashir attends international conferences secure in the knowledge he will not be arrested. Only a few days ago, he travelled to DRC with no condemnation from the international community. Arab and African leaders have rallied around Bashir, condemning the ICC for targeting Africans. Even respected leaders, such as former South African president Thabo Mbeki, argue ICC indictments are an impediment to finding peaceful solutions to longstanding conflicts.
When African leaders condemn the ICC they speak not for their citizens but for themselves. Sadly these African elites rarely consider, let alone represent the interests of the vast majority of their people. We know from talking to survivors of genocide that justice for them is crucial to peace and to rebuilding their lives. How can they not support the only mechanism offered to them that recognises the crimes committed to their people? The ICC may be less popular with corrupt abusers of power, but with those whose lives are ruined by systematic rape, war and hunger, it holds the only hope for justice.
The Sudanese academic Ahmed Adam points out that without the prospect of accountability there is unlikely to be lasting peace. It is unrealistic to expect people to forgive and forget when they have been the subject of a deliberate and ideological campaign to erase their ethnic group. Adam also argues that the architects of genocide and ethnic cleansing must be held accountable in order to deter future perpetrators of mass atrocities, and for a nation's legal system to have any meaning. Perpetuating a culture of impunity only makes further bloodshed likely.
It may be true that the ICC would have more international credibility if perpetrators of crimes from all over the world also appeared in the dock. But the ICC remains a court of last resort, available when a nation or region's own legal system is unable or unwilling to bring prosecutions. For this reason several Africans have been indicted following references from Africans themselves, rather than as a result of a Western conspiracy against African leaders.
It is in the UK's interest to use all available leverage to deliver Bashir and his accomplices to justice: so long as leaders can commit the crime of genocide without facing any consequences, they will be emboldened to put their destructive ideology in practice, putting an already unstable region in further jeopardy. Eventually the international community pays the price for ignoring mass atrocities, be it in intervening to stop further bloodshed, or in providing humanitarian assistance to millions of refugees, or in supporting asylum seekers who reach our shores.
It is bad enough that the international community averts its eyes from the state-sponsored horror that persists in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan; it is shameful that some years ago the UN stopped even trying to assess the numbers who have died in Darfur; and it is contemptible that the Sudanese regime can systematically bomb its own civilians without provoking more than a few feeble words of condemnation from the West. We compound Darfur's suffering by failing to use our leverage in the region to ensure Bashir faces justice at the ICC.
With very day that Bashir remains at liberty the rulers of Sudan rightly conclude they can carry on slaughtering their own unarmed civilians with impunity. And the people of Sudan conclude that they will receive no help to repair their shattered lives from a world that turns its eyes elsewhere.
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