International Court Charges Sudan's President With War Crimes in Darfur

Omar Hassan al-Bashir faces war crimes charges in the Darfur conflict, but his arrest is unlikely.

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The International Criminal Court of the United Nations ordered the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir today, marking the first time in The Hague court's seven-year history that it has issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state.

The three judges charged Bashir with five counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, torture, and rape, in connection with the ongoing conflict in Darfur, a restive region in western Sudan. Bashir was also charged with two counts of war crimes for attacks on civilians and pillaging.

The charges did not include three counts of genocide that were requested by the prosecutor. Genocide must be proved with evidence that crimes were specifically intended "to destroy, in whole or in part," an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group purely because of its identity. The chief prosecutor can pursue the genocide charge later if he gathers additional evidence, the judges said.

The other charges, the ICC's spokesperson said today, stem from Bashir's being suspected of "intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur." According to U.N. estimates, the six years of war in Darfur have caused the deaths of about 300,000 people; millions more have been displaced.

Even with the international attention to the warrant, however, it's very unlikely that Sudan will hand Bashir over to the ICC. Though it's legally obliged to, the country's ambassador to the United Nations said today that Khartoum doesn't recognize the legitimacy of The Hague court and refuses to surrender Bashir. "For us, the ICC doesn't exist," he said. (The United States does not recognize the court's authority over its citizens, either.) With no police force or military of its own, the ICC has few options for forcibly attaining Bashir.

Meanwhile, Sudan's ambassador made the same warning that others have been making: The warrant could undermine ongoing negotiations to end the conflict. It also could destabilize the tenuous Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 to end 20 years of civil war between the northern and southern regions of Sudan.

Other experts warn that the warrant could spark more violence in Darfur. Some fear that it could embolden rebels fighting against the government to launch more attacks or that it could lead to a violent crackdown by Khartoum.

Even so, the United States, Britain, and France supported the warrant in the hopes that it can push Sudan toward reform. And the popular feeling in Khartoum is strong, if quiet, in support of an indictment, some say.