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Sudan's Day in Court

The International Criminal Court's attempt to bring Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to justice backfires.

11:00 PM, Mar 5, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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The upshot is that the International Criminal Court has handed the Sudanese dictator a means to strengthen his reign of terror. As an aid worker told me: "It has created an opportunity for him to pound Darfur and to punish his opponents." Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, an ICC supporter, criticized the court's ruling as "a serious setback to lifesaving operations in Darfur." Critics fear that it also could disrupt the fragile peace agreement reached between the north and south in 2005.

What does this mean for the credibility of the International Criminal Court? Liberals remain obsessed with the United Nations and other international institutions as the sole repositories of moral authority. We are told that democratic governments--especially the United States, whose "international image" suffered under George W. Bush--lack the standing to challenge even the worst despots. The Washington Post's Colum Lynch summed up this attitude nicely, if unconsciously, in an interview on PBS's Newshour. He was asked whether the United States could press for Bashir's arrest: "It doesn't have the moral high ground to do that," he said, "because it's not a member of the court."

Allow the words to linger: It doesn't have the moral high ground because it's not a member of the court. Here is a presumption posing as an argument. Why should the International Criminal Court, a creature of the diplomatic delusions of European elites, represent the summit of moral wisdom on the world stage? Its judges are not subject to democratic checks and balances. It has yet to secure a successful prosecution. Even the court's supporters admit it has weak oversight provisions. Given its status as a U.N. body, the ICC risks being politicized and turned into a megaphone to excoriate U.S. foreign policy--the fate of the now discredited U.N. Human Rights Council.

There may be ways to prevent these unhappy outcomes for the ICC, but it's worth asking why there isn't an African solution to an African problem, especially the problem of genocide. This latest crisis in Sudan is also a religious crisis--a spiritual struggle within Islam. Most of the news reports this week somehow failed to mention it, but near the center of Sudan's heart of darkness is a violent strain of Islamist ideology. The conflict in Sudan is extremely complex, of course, involving a toxic mix of ethnic, tribal, racial, religious and economic motives. Rebel groups, mostly non-Arab, have felt marginalized from the nation's economic resources. Abuses against civilians have been committed by virtually all sides.

Yet there is little debate that the ideology of the Khartoum government--an Arab regime devoted to the violent imposition of Islamic law--has been a driving force behind the atrocities. It is not only the government that must be confronted, but its political theology.

It is not yet clear that the Obama administration, still finding its foreign policy footing, is prepared for this challenge. When asked at a press conference this week whether the United States would arrest Bashir if he entered the country (to attend a meeting at the United Nations, for example), State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid dodged the question. "Let's ask the lawyers to get us an answer on this so we are not speculating." So much for moral clarity. It will require better answers than that if, as the administration claims, the promotion of human rights is to be "central" to U.S. foreign policy. "I am looking for results," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a State Department event last month. "I am looking for changes that actually improve the lives of the greatest number of people."

If saving and improving lives is the goal in Sudan, then the Obama administration will need to look beyond the International Criminal Court, and look quickly.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to the THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.