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“I see your war crimes charge and raise you civilian protection…”

December 1, 2008

This is old-ish news, but it merits repeating: After five years of genocide, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is flirting with peace in Darfur. He just wants one thing in return—immunity from that pesky genocide charge issued this summer by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

And the United Nations, after years of tough talk about ending the genocide in Darfur, is flirting back: Four out of five permanent Council members would be willing to grant Bashir’s request, if, in the words of French President Nicholas Sarkozy “the Sudanese authorities do change, totally change, their policy[.]”

Um…I’m not a realist when it comes to international affairs but…c’mon. Really?

The BBC reports that France, Britain, China and Russia – every country that wields veto power on the UN Security Council except the United States – are willing to consider the deferring the charge, a power granted to the Council by the ICC’s charter.

Rights groups say a deferral will turn justice into a bargaining chip, undermine the credibility of the Security Council, and send a message that politics trumps victims’ right to redress. The cards are stacking up for a classic “peace or justice?” debate, the one that puts well-meaning humanitarians and activists on opposite sides of fence erected across the moral high ground: We all want violence to stop, and we all want criminals to be prosecuted. But which do we want more?

That’s the new frame the Arab League and the African Union, in calling for the deferral, have given the Darfur conflict. But analyst Eric Reeves says that frame misses the point:

    It’s not a choice between peace and justice, not if we are serious about meaningful peace: for it is precisely the relentless absence of justice and accountability (impunity) that has sustained violence in Darfur and will continue to do so if unaddressed.

And that may be the real point. This is, after all, the same Bashir who responded to accusations of mass rape in Darfur by saying, “It’s not in the Sudanese culture to rape,” he said. “Rape doesn’t exist.” It’s the same Bashir who called the janjaweed responsible for carrying out the violence “thieves and gangsters,” denying they have any allegiance to—or can by reigned in by—the Sudanese government. And it’s the same Bashir who has obstructed and delayed key parts of the peace agreement that ended the 20-year civil war in Southern Sudan.

So why, the Security Council should ask itself, should we believe Bashir now?

It may be that some impunity can be traded for a lot of peace—in fact, Sierra Leone may be a good case study for that argument. But this is Darfur, where the guy now portrayed as the gatekeeper of peace is the same guy who’s been enabling, at worst, and maybe even directing large-scale crimes. The International Crisis Group says it’s only when big carrots are held in front of Bashir that he changes his policies… but are we willing to risk it?

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