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A President in the Dock

NEW YORK – In a way, the stir aroused by the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to indict Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur is a surprise. After all, the Court has no means of its own to arrest anyone in Sudan, much less a head of state who commands the country’s armed forces. Nor is there any prospect that someone else will intervene in Sudan to make an arrest. While the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, expresses confidence that Bashir will be brought to justice, it is unclear how this will happen. But it could.

Despite the ICC’s seeming powerlessness, many governments’ leaders are engaged in strenuous efforts to block the indictment. They do not seem concerned that the charges are unfair; rather, they appear to be demonstrating solidarity with a fellow head of state. 

Those denouncing the attempt to put Bashir on trial include the large blocs of countries that are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the African Union, together with such powerful states as China and Russia. One can only guess whether some of those joining this effort are motivated by concern that they themselves may some day face charges like those leveled at Bashir by the ICC judges.

Though Bashir may be able to avoid arrest simply by limiting his international travel, the commotion provoked by the indictment is not irrational. The charges against him have a powerful stigmatizing effect.