The arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, could tear the country apart, Middle East experts have warned. The ICC, charged al-Bashir with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Darfur conflict, which the UN estimates has killed between 200,000 and 400,000 people. The Sudanese government puts the death toll at 10,000.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor leading the case, said Bashir "personally instructed" the Sudanese military and its allies to annihilate three ethnic groups in Darfur, after they rebelled against the government in 2003. In 2006, Khartoum and the Darfur rebel groups began negotiating a resolution – the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) - to end the conflict.
Badri Shafai, an Egyptian expert on African affairs, believes that the ICC indictment threatens to undermine the DPA and existing peace agreements with rebel groups in other Sudanese provinces.
"The north-south agreement will face more trouble and the same thing will happen to a peace deal with Darfur. The rebel movements will continue to destabilise the country, harming an already troubled government, and perhaps reignite another civil war," he told Al Jazeera. "The situation in Sudan will be a lot more difficult to deal with on all levels and the country will become increasingly unstable in the coming months," he said. Fragile peace deals
Africa's largest country has been embroiled in a number of conflicts since 1954, a year before it gained independence from British and Egyptian rule. Currently, there are 13,000 UN and African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Darfur and a 13,000-strong UN mission in southern Sudan enforcing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the decades-long north-south war in 2005.
The war, which killed more than two million people and displaced four million others, was fought between the Muslim-led Khartoum government in the north and Christian and animist groups in the south over resources, power, the role of religion in the state and self-determination.
Some UN commentators are surprised the deal has held this long, but an arrest for Bashir could damage Sudanese unity and threaten to undo the progress the country has made since he took power in a 1989 military coup. A year later, the Eritrea-brokered Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement (EPA) was signed in October 2006 between the government and two rebel groups in the east.
The Beja Congress and Free Lions rebel groups waged a low-intensity rebellion claiming they had inadequate access to health care and few opportunities for education. They accused Khartoum of negligence in the face of persistent drought, famine and land degradation.
In 2008, Sudan and Chad ended five years of hostilities and border incursions between the two countries. Safwat Fanous, a political analyst in Khartoum, believes the arrest warrant against Bashir will encourage rebel groups across Sudan to toughen their positions and in a worst-case scenario, lead them to abandon the existing peace deals entirely.
"Rebel movements in Darfur will have no incentive to negotiate with a government whose leader is indicted, because if they do issue an arrest warrant, Bashir will lose his legitimacy as a leader and as an effective role player in solving Sudan's problems." In a January 2009 report issued by the Chatham House, a UK-based think tank, Edward Thomas said: "Failure now could lead to the sort of breakdown seen in Darfur, and time and opportunities are running out." He says that while Bashir's National Congress Party is prepared to make changes in order to survive, "the changes must reduce the tensions between the centre and the periphery, and to do this they must address the need for a fairer division of wealth and power."
But Fanous believes that a paralysed government could also force peace deals to collapse altogether. Some rebel groups have already signalled that the ICC arrest warrant provides them with legitimacy to push their campaign against the central government.
Khalil Ibrahim, the JEM leader, said: "When this warrant comes it is, for us, the end of Bashir's legitimacy to be president of Sudan." "We will work hard to bring him down ... If he doesn't cooperate with the ICC, the war will intensify," he said.
Anger and indifference
The arrest warrant makes Bashir the first serving head of state indicted by the ICC for war crimes. Ahmed Haroun, Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs, is also being accused of committing war crimes; he says the ICC's interference has obstructed ongoing peace talks.
Haroun described the ICC verdict as a way to reinforce the Darfur crisis and encourage violence throughout Sudan. "Every time a new round of negotiations is announced or conflicting parties get close to meeting at the negotiation table, the timings of the UN Security Council always comes to obstruct and hinder on going peace efforts," he told Al Jazeera.
Abdullah Ashaal, an Egyptian expert on international law, believes the ICC should take into consideration how the arrest warrant could destabilise Sudan. "They are ignoring all the ramifications that could take place after the decision," he said. "It is obvious they are politicising the conflict in many respects which is why there is a general sense of anger in the Arab world toward the court," he said.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a statement in July 2008, that the move to issue an arrest warrant could either create big opportunities or big risks for Sudan.
"The problem for international policymakers is that the prosecutor's legal strategy also poses major risks for the fragile peace and security environment in Sudan, with a real chance of greatly increasing the suffering of very large numbers of its people," the statement said.
The statement further suggested that a deferral of the decision would have given Bashir's government an incentive to resolve its internal rifts. The Arab League also issued a statement emphasising the priority of a peaceful settlement in Darfur over Bashir's arrest.
The African Union backed the Arab League, citing "widespread anarchy" if the ICC issued the warrant. The International Criminal Court is the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal and works as an independent body – not a UN court. Under Article 16 of the Rome statute of the ICC, which established the court in 2002, the UN Security Council has the power to suspend any indictments under "deferral of investigation and prosecution".
African Union and Arab League representatives gathered at the UN headquarters in New York on February 17 to push for delaying the ICC decision for one year, but efforts failed.
The meeting resulted in Western powers, led by the United States, Britain and France, wanting the prosecution to proceed, but China and Russia, who maintain strong political, economic and military links with Sudan, were opposed to the possible indictment.
Ahsaal told Al Jazeera that ignoring previous endeavours made by the Arab League and AU to postpone the indictment is a flagrant violation of the statute. "They should bring up these charges to the ICC. Now, more than 40 African countries are thinking of pulling out as members of the court," he said.
Ashaal said: "I've seen more than 400 complaints that have been submitted to the ICC concerning crimes in Gaza and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Ocampo has made it very clear that he will not pursue an investigation in any one of these cases." He believes Ocampo's refusal to investigate other war crime cases is a clear indication that he is not acting within the framework of ICC's statute.
"If the were the case, then the ICC would have ordered an indictment for former President Bush and his cohorts for waging war against Iraq and Afghanistan and for the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."
'Conspiracy against Sudan'
Sudan is a country rich in oil, uranium, copper – natural resources that have been coveted by superpowers for decades. Some Sudanese officials claim they have become a victim of the age-old intrigues and conspiracies of Western powers that wish to further interests in their country by destabilising it.
Ali al-Sadiq, the Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, said in February 2009 that the court is "a mere tool for political conspiracy against the Sudan and that it has nothing to do with the international justice."
In the context of US- Sudan relations, Fanous believes the US and other Western powers wish to make Sudan a weak country and divide it for many reasons. Sudan has supported Hamas, the Palestinian group ruling the Gaza Strip, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait of 1990, as part of a series of decisions that run contrary to US foreign policy.
Fanous explained that the indictment could harm relations between the north and south, forcing them to split. Once the south secedes, it would be open to negotiate with the US and others since it holds most of Sudan's oil.
He said that Darfur, a region that is rich in petroleum and which has considered declaring independence in previous years, could also break away with US support.
Fanous also believes that a weaker Sudan would threaten national security for bordering Egypt, and a weaker Egypt would only allow the West to gain more influence in the Arab world.
"Nevertheless, the US refuses to negotiate with the Islamic governance in Sudan, and watching the country collapse would allow Washington to change the country's political landscape." Credit: Al-Jazeera