Last week the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The action has historical implications with al-Bashir becoming the first sitting head of state to be subjected to an arrest warrant in the life of the court. The warrants are for war crimes and crimes against humanity with the ICC leaving the charge of genocide out at this stage. As soon as the ICC acted the al-Bashir regime in Khartoum responded by chosing to expel the aid groups that are providing the basic supplies that are a critical life bridge for the refugees of the fighting in Darfur.
With this aggressive response from al-Bashir, the eyes of the international community have turned to Washington, DC to see what the Obama administration will do next. It is clear that the challenge for the administration is to leverage the pressure the court's action will bring to bear on the Sudanese leader. Darfur activists would like to see the administration publicly support the arrest warrant and make clear that the U.S. will not sit idly by if any member of the Security Council -- such as China or Russia -- attempts to shield Mr. al-Bashir. Activists are also very keen to see the administration name a special envoy to take charge of the Darfur/Sudan issue (there are a number of attractive options such as former Supreme Commander of NATO General Wesley Clark).
An envoy would be in a position to take advantage of the space created by the ICC and push for a comprehensive peace agreement that will address the interlinked challenges in Sudan with Darfur being the most critical. There is a belief among Sudan watchers that the ruling party may be willing to negotiate if they are pushed by a united international community at this time. The Obama administration would likely push for an agreement that included:
1. A long-term U.N. peacekeeping group in Darfur.
2. Complete demilitarization of all militia groups.
3. Governance concessions by the Sudanese central authorities.
4. Immediate transfer of two other alleged war criminals -- former Minister of State for the Interior Ahmed Haroun and janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb -- to the ICC.
Bringing systemic change to Sudan will take focused, long term diplomacy but the crisis in Darfur and threat to refugees needs a rapid response from the President Obama. The ICC has created some space -- let's hope the administration can use it.