The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on every crime under its mandate: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Such charges should have left Sudan’s leader marginalized and vulnerable to arrest. Yet Bashir has not only evaded arrest, he’s also been able to travel the globe and rub shoulders with world leaders. Last year, he visited South Africa, a prominent supporter of the ICC, for an African Union summit, and has forged a new relationship with Riyadh, enjoying a prominent place in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Bashir’s recent travels suggest that this rehabilitation has accelerated in ominous ways. Earlier this month, Bashir traveled to Uganda, an ICC member state with a treaty obligation to arrest him. Bashir feted his Ugandan counterpart at President Yoweri Museveni’s fourth swearing-in, where Museveni introduced Bashir and described the ICC as “a bunch of useless people.” Recent reports also suggest that the European Union plans to partner with Bashir to stem migrant flows from north Africa. To top things off, the Sudanese president has applied for a visa to attend the 2016 United Nations General Assembly. What remains of the diplomatic sanction attached to an ICC indictment?
Bashir’s Uganda visit attracted significant controversy. The American, Canadian and European Union delegations walked out of Museveni’s ceremony over his remarks. A U.S. State Department spokesman said that Museveni’s comments amounted to “mocking the victims of genocide.” Human rights groups and justice advocates demanded that Uganda detain Bashir and surrender him to the ICC. Critics suggested that Bashir’s presence in an ICC member state once again illustrated the feeble power of the court. One local group filed a motion with Uganda’s High Court in an attempt to sue the government for reneging on its domestic obligations to arrest Bashir and to request an injunction preventing the government from inviting the Sudanese president again.
In fact, Bashir’s presence in Uganda had little to do with defying the ICC. Rather, his visit should be seen within the context of thawing relations between Khartoum and Kampala. Sudan and Uganda have been fierce regional rivals for the better part of two decades. Bashir and Museveni have sponsored each other’s adversaries through an intricate web of proxy warfare. Bashir has long been the sponsor of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), providing it with refuge, arming and supporting the notorious rebel group against the government of Uganda. In turn, Museveni fostered close relations with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army that fought Sudanese forces until — and, unfortunately, also since — South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan in 2011. Historically, Museveni and Bashir have seen their relationship more as an eye for an eye rather than eye to eye. It was this mutual disdain and enmity that resulted in Bashir skipping Museveni’s previous swearing-in ceremony in 2011. At the time, however, it was generally explained by insisting that Bashir had been successfully marginalized by the ICC warrants against him.
In recent months, however, the Kampala-Khartoum relationship has warmed. In an effort to reconcile differences and normalize relations, Museveni made a historic visit to Khartoum last year. In turn, Museveni extended an invitation to his swearing-in earlier this month — but unlike in 2011, this time he meant it.
This development is significant for African regional politics. But what does it tell us about the ICC? Both critics and proponents of the ICC ascribe more salience and power to the institution than it actually has. Bashir didn’t skip Museveni’s 2011 ceremony because of the ICC, but because the two leaders despised each other. And the reason for his attendance this month was not due to the ICC no longer being relevant, but because Uganda and Sudan are attempting to patch up their differences. Museveni’s vitriolic diatribe against the ICC may have flattered Bashir and offended his Western guests, but should come as no great surprise. Museveni’s schizophrenic attitude to the ICC is nothing new; he has cooperated with the ICC on the trial of child soldier-turned-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, while simultaneously lambasting the court as a neocolonial institution out to demonize Africans and protect Western interests.
Far more surprising, and potentially troubling, are reports of the European Union signaling that it would work with the very governmentits members believe is responsible for untold human suffering in Darfur. Just a day after Museveni’s swearing-in, Der Spiegel revealed that the European Union was partnering with Bashir to stem migrant flows from northern Africa. According to its report, “Europe wants to send cameras, scanners and servers for registering refugees to the Sudanese regime in addition to training their border police and assisting with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants.” Sudanese officials have apparently told their German counterparts that migrants who are put into the camps will stay there indefinitely, insisting that “[t]he goal is that the refugees won’t leave the new camps.”
The idea of E.U.-sponsored camps in Sudan is particularly disquieting given widespread allegations of atrocities committed by Sudanese forces in internally displaced persons camps in Darfur, where living conditions have led some to argue that it amounts to “genocide by attrition.” Unsurprisingly, internal European Commission documents state that “under no circumstances” could the European public learn about the E.U.’s coalition with Bashir to fight the refugee influx into Europe. Now the cat is out of the bag — and it appears that the E.U.’s zealous commitment to arresting migration has trumped its principled commitment to arresting war criminals.
On the diplomatic front, these developments appear to have emboldened Bashir. The Sudanese president has applied to the United States for a visa in order to attend the U.N. General Assembly this coming September. In 2013, Bashir made a similar request, but it was ultimately denied when U.S. officials simply ignored it.
According to Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal, however, this time Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has extended Bashir an invitation to attend. This would be particularly problematic given the U.N.’s own guidelines restricting diplomatic interactions with alleged war criminals. The veracity of Bilal’s claim remains unclear and it is difficult to imagine the United States allowing Bashir to visit. But his application illustrates an increasingly confident president.
None of this is good news for the ICC. Its champions have long argued that the court’s targets will be isolated and marginalized. But seven years since Bashir was first indicted, the Sudanese president is increasingly rubbing shoulders with leaders around the world — including those who govern ICC member-states. The court has few-to-no effective remedies to counter Bashir. It can huff and puff. It can demand explanations from states. It can even ask the U.N. Security Council to huff and puff for it. But the institution fully recognizes that the current diplomatic landscape istilting in Bashir’s favor — and not toward justice and accountability. Only a change in those diplomatic circumstances — and not the demands of justice — will land Bashir in The Hague.