Persona Non Grata

The United States should arrest Sudan's genocidal president in New York.


For the first time ever, attendees at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week may include a sitting head of state who is the subject of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for genocide and crimes against humanity. That head of state is Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who, clearly undeterred by the ICC warrant, has said he plans to make the trip to New York. To make matters worse, Bashir intends to visit the UNGA after unleashing new violence in 2013 that has led to levels of human displacement second only to Syria, in global terms, since the beginning of the year.

Indeed, Darfur, the scene of Bashir’s earlier crimes for which he was indicted by the ICC, is burning again. Janjaweed militia forces, backed by the Sudanese government, are once more torching villages, terrorizing civilians, and systematically clearing prime land and resource-rich areas of their inhabitants. The latest ethnic-cleansing campaign has already displaced over half a million Darfuri civilians this year, the largest population movement since the height of the genocide eight years ago. Amid this horror, it is unconscionable that the U.N. and United States would welcome Bashir to New York — unless there are plans to arrest him and try him on a global stage.

Most media and diplomatic descriptions of the surging violence in Darfur fall within the popularly accepted "endemic intertribal hatred" narrative. In reality, however, the violence is systematic, state-sponsored, and driven by economic and security objectives. Bashir and his government actively promote the image of uncontrollable, anarchic, intertribal violence to mask their divide-and-rule strategy’s underlying intent: consolidating control of the economy in Darfur.

At the height of the mass atrocities committed from 2003 to 2005, the Sudanese regime’s janjaweed strategy appeared to be driven only secondarily by the acquisition of salaries and war booty. By contrast, today’s escalating violence is more blatantly fueled by monetary motivations. The government and its militia allies are grabbing land, consolidating control of recently discovered gold mines, manipulating reconciliation conferences for increased "blood money," expanding protection rackets and smuggling networks, demanding ransoms, robbing banks, and resuming large-scale looting.

An additional government motivation behind these actions and other violence is appeasing increasingly restless janjaweed constituencies needed for the regime’s fight against the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front, which is battling the regime in Darfur and other parts of the country. Gradually, many janjaweed militia groups, including those incorporated in Sudan’s border guards and Central Reserve Police, have slipped partly out of government control as the salaries and other endowments available for patronage networks have shrunk with declining government budgets and interest. Janjaweed units increasingly have undertaken criminal activities to make up for lost payments from the government’s off-budget expenditures. During the past six months, the regime has sought to bring many of its favored janjaweed elements back into closer alliance around shared objectives, such as population clearing in northern Darfur to better control dramatically increased gold production there.

In addition to attacking non-Arab ethnic groups, throughout 2013 some of the regime’s janjaweed militias have also targeted civilians from Arab tribes that were historically aligned with the government. The newly expanded scope of violence in Darfur is also tied to the emergence of pressing economic imperatives, largely triggered by the loss of oil revenues following southern secession. As the government struggles to develop alternate revenue streams and pacify the increasingly restless janjaweed elements, Sudanese government officials have grown willing to fan the flames of violence even against some of their less-favored allies.

Since the regime in Khartoum denies journalists, aid workers, and U.N. peacekeepers access to Darfur and other locations where civilian targeting is frequent, the killing, looting, and burning occurs in an information blackout. Encountering increasing difficulties from Khartoum, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, is largely unable to protect civilians and has not yet been able to address the deepening economic and security drivers of rapidly intensifying conflict in Darfur.

And Darfur is not the only area of Sudan that is burning. The government has deployed similar scorched-earth tactics in its conflict with Sudan Revolutionary Front rebels in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile region. To date, separate peace initiatives for these areas have been pursued, thus dividing international efforts and playing into the hands of Khartoum’s strategy. Instead, the international community should abandon the existing stovepiped talks and prioritize the creation of one comprehensive peace process that addresses all of Sudan’s conflicts in one forum, maximizing participation from a wide swath of elements of civil society, the opposition, rebels, and the government.

The United States and European Union are strong rhetorical supporters of a comprehensive approach to peace in Sudan. They now must act on that rhetoric with bold diplomacy that closely supports lead African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, as he promotes a solution addressing the grievances of all Sudanese. Of equal urgency, the United States and EU should provide new support to those Sudanese actors inside the country who are on the front lines of the struggle for peace and democracy. Such a "peace surge" resulted in the deal that ended two decades of deadly war between the north and south of Sudan in 2005 and led to the peaceful birth of the new state of South Sudan in 2011. A similar, expanded diplomatic effort could end the equally deadly, multifront war that continues to rage in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile.

There should be a global strategy of total isolation against Bashir and any official who uses genocidal tactics to brutally retain power. Thus, if it is allowed, Bashir’s visit to the U.N. should result in U.S. authorities arresting him and sending him to The Hague. Otherwise, the only possible silver lining of this situation would be that the international outrage over Bashir’s appearance and the corresponding, refocused attention on his continuing crimes might galvanize support for real solutions in Sudan, such as a comprehensive peace process. Put simply, Sudanese lives depend on one, or ideally both, of these outcomes.

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