Chad’s awkward neighbor

Ever since the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in March 2009, the question of where and when he would travel has been a dark parlor game for those interested in international justice. Soon after the indictment, Bashir left Sudan to visit Eritrea. His peregrinations have now included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China, ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Government of South Africa
Government of South Africa
Government of South Africa

Ever since the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in March 2009, the question of where and when he would travel has been a dark parlor game for those interested in international justice. Soon after the indictment, Bashir left Sudan to visit Eritrea. His peregrinations have now included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Malawi, and Libya. Key foreign leaders, including South Africa's Jacob Zuma (pictured above) have also greeted Bashir on his home court.  

Bashir's travels have a particular punch when the destination is a country that has joined the ICC. According to the Rome Statute, member states have a legal obligation to arrest Bashir if he sets foot on their soil. He's now traveled several times in defiance of that threat, including to Djibouti, Kenya, and Malawi. Each time, the court has filed a protest with the U.N. Security Council, which does precisely nothing. However, international justice activists roar their disapproval and insist that the receiving governments are flouting their legal obligations and, more broadly, encouraging impunity.

That dynamic is playing out again this week. Chad, which has welcomed Bashir several times before, has invited him to attend a regional conference. It's expected that he will arrive today, although there are also rumors that the conference will be delayed. Watchful human rights groups have blasted out their press releases condemning the trip. It's not hard to understand the outrage. Bashir has allegedly masterminded a campaign of abuses and ethnic cleansing not only in Darfur, but also now in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Chad's own government is deeply flawed and has been accused of a variety of human rights-violations.

Ever since the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in March 2009, the question of where and when he would travel has been a dark parlor game for those interested in international justice. Soon after the indictment, Bashir left Sudan to visit Eritrea. His peregrinations have now included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Malawi, and Libya. Key foreign leaders, including South Africa’s Jacob Zuma (pictured above) have also greeted Bashir on his home court.  

Bashir’s travels have a particular punch when the destination is a country that has joined the ICC. According to the Rome Statute, member states have a legal obligation to arrest Bashir if he sets foot on their soil. He’s now traveled several times in defiance of that threat, including to Djibouti, Kenya, and Malawi. Each time, the court has filed a protest with the U.N. Security Council, which does precisely nothing. However, international justice activists roar their disapproval and insist that the receiving governments are flouting their legal obligations and, more broadly, encouraging impunity.

That dynamic is playing out again this week. Chad, which has welcomed Bashir several times before, has invited him to attend a regional conference. It’s expected that he will arrive today, although there are also rumors that the conference will be delayed. Watchful human rights groups have blasted out their press releases condemning the trip. It’s not hard to understand the outrage. Bashir has allegedly masterminded a campaign of abuses and ethnic cleansing not only in Darfur, but also now in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Chad’s own government is deeply flawed and has been accused of a variety of human rights-violations.

But consider for a moment Chad’s position. It shares a nearly 600-mile long border with Sudan. The countries have clashed militarily on several occasions. As recently as 2008, rebels operating from Chad staged an attack on the outskirts of Khartoum. Since that time, Khartoum and N’Djamena have struggled to build better relations. Chad’s president made a rare visit to Khartoum in 2010 to help solidify the warming trend, and the countries formally reopened border crossings that same year. Leaving security issues aside, Chad and Sudan have critical economic, demographic, and social links.

Both governments are deeply flawed, but there are still important human benefits to them maintaining decent relations. Face-to-face presidential contact may be an important element in that effort. Instead, justice activists are demanding that Chad rebuff and humiliate a neighboring head of state in the interests of "international justice." It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see how Chad’s leadership might conclude that the interests of its own people are best served by ignoring the arrest warrant from the Hague. And given the stakes in preserving decent relations between these states, it’s not hard to make a plausible moral argument that they’re right to do so.

More: A smart diplomat from a country that belongs to and supports the ICC writes in with this observation on Chad’s behavior:

I actually fully sympathize with the notion that Chad indeed has a lot at stake in its relations with Sudan, and therefore might as well be nice to Mr. Bashir. My main problem with Chad is that they are—as far as I know—not making your argument (which is a very good one), but instead are hiding behind the African Union decision on non-cooperation. They are also not taking the formal steps necessary under the Rome Statute, which is to consult with the Court when they cannot execute an arrest warrant, but keep ignoring the Court. I think Chad might have a good shot at getting recognition of its very peculiar situation by the ICC, if it would attempt to make the argument in a proper way and in good faith.

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

Tag: War

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