Interview: Finally, Sudan’s Ex-Dictator al-Bashir May Face Justice
Written by Kendrick Lebron on February 14, 2020
What changed in Sudan allowing al-Bashir to face justice?
First and foremost, al-Bashir is no longer in power. Although he’s faced arrest warrants from the ICC since 2009, it wasn’t until he was ousted in April, after months of protests, that this even became a possibility.
Initially, Sudan’s transitional authorities said al-Bashir would be tried before a Sudanese domestic court. But the authorities are engaged in peace talks with Darfur rebel groups, which are insisting on justice. In those negotiations, the authorities agreed to cooperate with the ICC.
How long has Human Rights Watch been trying to bring al-Bashir to justice?
I’ve been working on this for 14 years. First to see the Darfur situation be sent to the ICC so that the atrocities committed there could be investigated. Then to see al-Bashir and the other Sudanese ICC suspects, of which there are now four, surrendered to the court. When the United Nations Security Council first referred Darfur to the ICC in 2005, we thought justice would be on the way sooner rather than later. It never occurred to me I would be working on this same effort so many years later as victims and their families continue to seek justice.
What are the ICC arrest warrants for?
In quelling a counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur, the highest level of al-Bashir’s government was implicated in numerous attacks against civilians, as well as murders, rapes, and pillage. Human Rights Watch was on it back in 2005, with incredible documentation gathered under extremely difficult circumstances of the crimes and the need for justice.
How did we push for justice over the years?
There have been so many ups and downs. Because Sudan wasn’t a member of the ICC, you needed a UN Security Council referral to the court – or for Sudan to request that the court get involved, which wasn’t going to happen. This meant that the United States, as a permanent member of the council with veto power, had to either support a referral or abstain from voting. We were constantly knocking on the doors of the French and the British and other Security Council members, asking them to convince the US that the victims of Darfur should take priority over their hostility to the ICC. And the US did ultimately abstain on the vote!
After this and after the arrest warrants for al-Bashir were issued, there was an expectation that ICC members would arrest him. There were some early victories – like when he canceled a trip to Zambia and had to flee Nigeria less than 24 hours after arrival as civil society groups went to court demanding his arrest. But it was a low point when some ICC members, like South Africa, accepted him on their territory.
There have been years and years of making the case for surrender and not getting enough traction for that to actually happen. I’m not going to lie. There have been days when it’s been hard to keep at it.
The ICC wants him for crimes in Darfur, but since then al-Bashir has been implicated in other terrible abuses. Will he be tried for these, too?
There’s no question that al-Bashir’s government committed abuses in other parts of Sudan, including Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, and a year ago in quelling the protests that led to his ouster. The new transitional authorities have indicated they want to see him and others allegedly involved face justice for a much wider set of serious crimes.
Why is it important that Sudan works with the ICC?
Victims of grave abuses in Darfur have never stopped clamoring for justice, and in our experience, holding perpetrators to account helps show that these crimes will not be tolerated and that no one is above the law. It increases the chances for respect for human rights and for a durable peace.
What’s happening in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, now?
Some of my Human Rights Watch colleagues are there this week for our first official trip to Khartoum in more than a dozen years. We could not get authorization to work in the country before. Kenneth Roth, our executive director, met with senior leaders, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and he spoke at an event at Khartoum University. There’s so much possibility now in the country.
My hope – on which I am cautiously optimistic – is that this isn’t just talk, and that the transitional leaders follow through on this commitment to cooperate with the ICC. I hope we’ll be able to say that those who committed the worst atrocities in Darfur will finally be held to account.