Parliament leaders denounce ICC

The international arrest warrant against the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and the Arab-Israeli conflict top the agenda of Arab parliamentary leaders.

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MUSCAT // The international arrest warrant against the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and the Arab-Israeli conflict topped the agenda of Arab parliamentary leaders, as they convened yesterday in the Omani capital. Abdullah bin Muhammad Al Ashaikh, speaker of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, said the arrest warrant issued on Wednesday by the International Criminal Court (ICC) reflected a double standard in the international judiciary system.

"It's strange that the court is issuing that warrant against heads of states while Israeli officials, who have committed several crimes, are left free," Mr Al Ashaikh said at the 15th Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union conference, which concludes today. Last week, the court said Mr al Bashir's official capacity as president "does not exclude his criminal responsibility, nor does it grant him immunity against prosecution before the ICC".

The court decision has aroused widespread opposition, notably in the African Union, the Arab League and China. Mr al Bashir is charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. The decision is unlikely to affect Mr al Bashir's movements, at least within Africa and the Arab world, but some of Darfur's anti-government militias have promised to co-operate with the court. Mr al Bashir is planning to attend an Arab League summit in Doha this month.

The speaker of Qatar's Advisory Council, Mohammed bin Mubarak al Khuleifi, said the warrant would undermine efforts to find a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Darfur. The Sudanese government and Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement signed a goodwill agreement last month in Doha, pledging to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. But the head of the rebel group said on Saturday that he would reconsider his position on the agreement should Qatar invite Mr al Bashir to the Arab summit.

The arrest warrant "constitutes a dangerous precedent in international relations, and doesn't serve security and stability in Darfur", Mr al Khuleifi said yesterday. "We appeal to the Security Council to pave the way for the mediation efforts exerted by Qatar to achieve peace." The treaty under which the court was established gives the UN Security Council the power to suspend charges for up to one year, but that can be renewed indefinitely if the council sees fit.

At least 108 countries have signed the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. China, India, Russia and the United States have refused to do so; Jordan is the only Arab country to have ratified the treaty. In his speech yesterday, Sudan's National Assembly speaker, Ahmed Ibrahim al Taher, claimed that the court was controlled by seven European countries hostile to Sudan. "This is a dangerous precedent under which immunity of world leaders is lost," he said.

The Sudanese parliament urged the states that have ratified the Rome Statute to reconsider their membership of the court because the ICC was "being partial to political objectives of the West". The Arab-Israeli conflict was also to the fore in the speeches of the speakers of the 18 parliaments that took part in the conference. Khalifa al Dhahrani, of the Council of Representatives of Bahrain, urged his Arab counterparts to support initiatives to pursue Israeli leaders via legal channels for possible crimes against humanity committed during the recent flare-up in Gaza. Oman and Saudi Arabia made similar points.

The 22-day Israeli offensive, launched in December, killed at least 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of children. Tens of thousands were left homeless. The Bahraini official appealed to Arab parliamentarians to lobby the International Parliamentary Union to suspend Israel's membership. The Arab parliamentarians also emphasised the importance of Palestinian unity. The Palestinian factions, mainly the two dominant groups, Fatah and Hamas, which had two representatives at the meeting, have been locked in a dispute for the past two years.

Dr Ahmad Bahar, a Hamas leader and the first deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, urged the Arab legislators to get to work on bringing Israeli leaders before international courts. He also pressed them to step up their efforts at the international level to free the Hamas parliamentarians arrested by Israel and to speed up the reconstruction of Gaza and the opening of border crossings closed by Israel.

The Hamas leader expressed hope that the inter-Palestinian dialogue, hosted by the Egyptian government would be successful. Arab leaders have repeatedly said the Palestinians should solve their differences, if a settlement with Israel is to be reached.