Grave Crimes

By Keppler, Elise | The World Today, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Grave Crimes


Keppler, Elise, The World Today


The United Nations security Council has taken some belated measures to stop the violence in Darfur, but its response has been woefully inadequate. Prosecution of those responsible could make a real difference. Given the gravity of the crimes and the Sudanese government's unwillingness to act investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court could hold the key.

THE ATROCITIES IN DARFUR HAVE BEEN UNSPEAKABLE. THE Janjaweed militias, with the active backing and participation of Sudanese government forces, have looted, raped and massacred. As part of an ethnic cleansing campaign, they have burnt villages and committed crimes against humanity. More than one and a half million people have been forced from their homes.

Because Sudan has not ratified the International Criminal Court treaty, a special security Council referral would be needed in the case of Darfur. Such a referral could well encounter the opposition of the United States, which loathes the Court. But it was created to address just these kinds of serious crimes. If the Court is kept out of the security Council debate out of fear of the ire of the US, it could threaten to make the Court itself seem irrelevant when referrals are needed in years to come.

Britain has a critical role to play. In the past, it has supported the Court, most notably when the treaty to set it up was agreed in Rome in 1998. In theory at least, that support still stands. In the last two years, however, Britain has repeatedly failed to rally behind the Court in the face of US efforts to undermine its integrity.

Thus, last June, when Washington was trying to force through a security Council resolution which would grant American military and civilian personnel in UN operations immunity from prosecution before the Court, Britain was prepared to let the resolution succeed. It was the only security Council member, that had ratified the Rome treaty, to take that stance in the face of UN secretary-General Kofi Annan's warnings that 'blanket exemption is wrong' and Of dubious judicial value'.

In the end, the Americans backed down when it became clear that they were certain to lose the vote; but Britain did nothing to bring that victory closer. When the issues of principle are so important, as is the case with Darfur, it must be hoped that London will stand firm.

Lame Efforts

Khartoum has feigned lame efforts to hold those responsible to account. The climate of impunity is nothing new for Sudan. Impunity for massive abuses of human rights committed by the army and ethnic militias in the separate twenty-one year civil war in southern Sudan undoubtedly contributed to the use of similar tactics in Darfur. Now, the pattern could be broken.

As the first permanent international tribunal, the Court was established to ensure justice for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in cases where national systems are unable or unwilling to prosecute. Whether or not the crimes committed in Darfur meet the criteria for genocide, it is clear that they are war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The US is not the only government which is likely to be uncomfortable about a referral to the Court. China has strong oil interests in Sudan; Russia supplies arms to Khartoum.

A security Council referral is likely to become a real issue soon. In October, the Council authorised the establishment of an independent international Commission of Inquiry. The Commission is investigating violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Darfur, deciding whether or not acts of genocide have occurred, and identifying the perpetrators with a view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.

This commission may sound like yet another talking shop. …

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