Omar Al Bashir, Sudan’s former head of state charged by the International Criminal Court with “genocide”, is one step closer to facing justice, nearly two decades after the tragedy began.
In a marked departure from Sudan’s previous government, Khartoum announced this week that suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes in the western region of Darfur, will soon be required to appear before court. Al Bashir is wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Al Bashir is also facing charges in his own country. While the ex-leader was convicted of corruption in Sudan in December and is facing trial over crimes against demonstrators in the weeks leading to his downfall, his actions with respect to Darfur have not yet faced trial.
The announcement has brought hope to Darfuris, who have long sought wider justice in the aftermath of the genocide, and heeded the calls of a popular protest movement for Al Bashir to be held accountable for his crimes.
In 2003, rebels in Darfur took up arms against the government, which they accused of having oppressed them for decades and neglected their region. In response, Khartoum violently repressed the insurrection and armed local tribesmen, who in turn proceeded to kill civilians indiscriminately. More than 300,000 Sudanese were killed, and millions more were forced to flee. Unfortunately, their plight did not end with Al Bashir’s downfall. To this day, 2.7 million Darfuris live in squalid refugee camps across Sudan and Niger.
But Sudan is now publicly committed to mending old wounds. In a little over a year, the country has undergone monumental transformations. The country is now headed by a civil-military council with stated aims to boost the economy, achieve internal peace, and prepare for fresh elections in three years. In its latest decision, Khartoum has articulated an intention to turn the page on Al Bashir’s reign of terror and build a new nation open to the world, where leadership rests on the principle of accountability.
Good intentions, of course, are most useful when they are backed by genuine capability. It remains unclear whether Khartoum is in a position to carry out the internationally recognised form of justice it wants. There are questions about extraditing Al Bashir to the Netherlands, where the court is based, or developing a hybrid tribunal located in Sudan. Reaching a constructive outcome will rely on a spirit of genuine goodwill and cooperation between the Sudanese authorities and the ICC. What matters is for justice to be served and that the Sudanese judicial process is strengthened and respected.
Furthermore, while the prosecution of war criminals will certainly go a long way from where Sudan is now, it will not solve all of Darfur’s woes. Ongoing fighting between rebels factions, government-backed militias and security forces has prevented millions of displaced Darfuris from returning home and taken a toll on the region’s economy and infrastructure. But a deference to the rule of law may help to shape the political conversations needed to pave the way for lasting peace. Thus far, months of meetings between Sudanese government officials and rebel leaders in Juba, the capital of Sudan’s southern neighbour, have yielded little in the way of results. Al Bashir’s appearance in an internationally accredited courtroom could help Khartoum gain the rebels’ confidence and facilitate peace talks.
Peace has become all the more pressing, as reviving Sudan’s economy requires authorities to redirect much of its defence and security spending - which currently account for 40 per cent of total expenditure - to underfunded sectors such as education and healthcare. These funds could also be used to support local businesses and entrepreneurs and build vital infrastructure.
The people of Sudan need to see justice. Reckoning with the truth about what happened in Darfur and finding closure relate to lightening the darkness from the country’s past. A fair judicial process and holding those responsible to account is vital to stop history from repeating itself. Furthermore, creating the necessary space for peace and prosperity to thrive will provide the Sudanese, for the first time in many years, a chance at a bright future.