After stirring up a firestorm of controversy by announcing his intention to attend the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sudanese President and accused war criminal Omar al-Bashir may be getting cold feet. As recently as Sunday, Bashir confirmed his travel plans, claiming to have booked a flight through Morocco and even a hotel in New York. But senior U.N. diplomats are nonetheless beginning to wonder if the accused genocidaire will risk arrest and extradition to the International Criminal Court by setting foot in Manhattan.
"That’s my assumption [that he’s not coming], but we’re planning on anything," a senior U.N. official told Foreign Policy. "Would he want to see the [General Assembly] hall clear out?"
As the host country for the United Nations, the United States is obligated to grant visas to foreign leaders and their representatives, regardless of the status of bilateral relations with the U.S. government (though it can deny diplomats entry on national security grounds). But Bashir, who has been twice indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in the country’s Darfur region, would be the first leader to attend the General Assembly with a warrant out for his arrest.
Bashir stands accused of orchestrating a massive genocidal campaign against non-Arab minorities in the Darfur region that has left roughly 300,000 people dead since 2003, according to the United Nations. The fighting, which had died down in recent years, has picked up again, with an estimated 300,000 people displaced since the beginning of 2013.
The United States is not a party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, and so would not be legally bound to extradite Bashir. Still, the State Department has said it is weighing the ICC’s extradition request, and the U.S. government has transferred suspects to the court in the past. Privately, American officials are working to discourage Bashir from making the journey to New York, according to a U.N. diplomat who asked not to be named. "They’re trying to explain to [Sudanese officials] how difficult this could be for [Bashir] and that it could create a situation that is not entirely in [American] control," said the diplomat. The message they are seeking to convey, the diplomat added, is that it’s better for him not to come.
There is no word yet on whether the State Department will approve the Sudanese leader’s visa request.
The United States has previously come under fire for delaying or denying the visa requests of U.N. officials. In 1988, it barred Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, from addressing the General Assembly, and in 2007, it denied a visa request by Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Other foreign parties have alleged that the State Department skirts its obligation to admit U.N. diplomats by granting visa requests at the last moment — or even after the General Assembly has concluded.
In this case, the State Department may not need to rule one way or the other. Bashir, who has increasingly confined his travel to Africa and the Middle East, may decide that the trip to New York is not worth the risk.
"He’s very much afraid. He’s not a brave person who likes to take risks," said a third U.N. official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He has cancelled trips to countries where he has been less exposed to risk."
Richard Dicker, the director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, agreed: "The fact that the U.S. to my knowledge has yet to issue a visa, and that the ICC has requested that the U.S. arrest him, creates the kind of uncertainty as to what could happen that could give [Bashir] some cause to ponder how much he wants to come to New York," he said.
In recent years, Bashir has canceled trips to Malaysia, Uganda, and Turkey at the last minute after human rights groups pressed for his arrest. In July, he was forced to leave Nigeria unexpectedly after human rights lawyers filed a lawsuit attempting to compel the Nigerian government to comply with the ICC extradition request. Sudanese officials denied that this was the reason for Bashir’s hasty departure — he left after less than 24 hours without delivering a scheduled address — claiming that he had another engagement to attend instead.
"Ultimately, it’s the president-slash-fugitive’s decision whether or not he will come to New York," said Dicker. But "booking a hotel room is in no way determinative of whether or not he’s coming."
Not everyone thinks the Sudanese strongman will stay away, however. "I’m not sure why he would do that," a European official told Foreign Policy when asked if Bashir might be amending his travel plans. "Now that there is no Ahmadinejad, no Qaddafi, no Chavez, no Mugabe, he could get a lot of attention here." The official also mentioned the potential for Bashir to ride the publicity wave into next month’s African Union summit at which African officials will consider joining Kenya’s bid to withdraw from the ICC.
"African states would not walk out on Bashir," said the official. "It would be the EU and Latin America."
Although his status as an international pariah has prevented him from traveling in much of the world, Bashir has managed to roam relatively freely in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Since 2009, when the ICC first indicted him for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Sudanese strongman has traveled to half a dozen African countries, as well as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among others. He has even risked extradition by traveling to ICC signatories like Chad, Kenya, Djibouti, and Malawi.
Whether he’s willing to put it all on the line to flout the international community in Turtle Bay remains an open question, but an increasing number of U.N. observers are ready to call his bluff.
"This decision was about sticking his finger in the eye of the international community as it gathers for the opening for the General Assembly and particularly the Security Council that mandated the ICC to investigate and prosecute the serious crimes in Darfur," said Dicker. Judging by the outpouring of anger at the proposed trip, Bashir has already achieved his objective.