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Sudan: Darfur Crisis Causes U.S. To Stumble Over Opposition To International Court

Darfur refugees in Chad (file photo) A United Nations commission says government troops and the Janjawid Arab militia have committed mass killings, torture, rape, and other atrocities against rebel African tribesmen in Sudan's Darfur region since 2003. The UN Security Council has called on two principals in the two-year conflict to appear before the council next week. They are Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha and John Garang, head of the main southern Sudan rebel group. The commission recommends that the Security Council refer the crimes to the new International Criminal Court (ICC). Though such a case seems custom-made for the ICC, the issue could become tangled in international diplomacy.

Prague, 4 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he finds the UN commission's report on the crimes in Darfur to be straightforward.

"I think the commission's report is very clear," Annan said. "It makes very serious recommendations to the council and urges the council to take prompt action, prompt action not only to bring those who have perpetrated crimes, serious crimes, to justice, but also as a warning to others."

Diplomats and humanitarian organizations call the Darfur situation -- where at least 70,000 civilians have died and hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced or brutalized -- the world's worst humanitarian crisis. There have been charges that the United Nations has stood by as the killings continued.

Annan told a press conference on 2 February that on a recent trip to Nigeria he was able to meet with Sudanese leaders to warn them that they must end the bloodshed.

"And I was also able to sit down with President [Umar Hassan Ahmad] Bashir of Sudan and his foreign minister [Mustafa Osman Ismail], with my representative, for us to tell them exactly what we think should be done and the fact that the situation in Darfur was not getting any better and it was essential that they took every step to bring the situation under control," Annan said.

Benin's UN ambassador, Joel Adechi, currently the chairman of the UN Security Council, said on 2 February after a closed council meeting that the council members are determined to make sure the Darfur crimes are punished.

But the Security Council has yet to take concrete action.

One reason is that China and the United States oppose referring the case to the ICC, for very different reasons.

China has substantial investments in oil production in Sudan. It therefore opposes sanctions against Sudan or embargoes on its oil. And China opposes referring the Darfur crimes to the ICC for fear of alienating its Sudanese partners.

The United States is one of the most outspoken opponents of the ICC. Along with China, it has refused to sign the 1998 Rome Statute that established the court, and Washington has worked diligently to cripple the court. The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush, backed by Congress, argues that countries opposed to U.S. foreign policy might misuse the court to bring frivolous accusations against Americans deployed in international peacekeeping missions and similar situations.

The United States finds itself in the potentially embarrassing stance of proposing the creation of an ad hoc, or single-purpose, court like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague or the special UN court in Tanzania that currently is prosecuting perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Ana Uzelec, a Hague-based program director with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, agrees the Darfur commission made a strong case for ICC jurisdiction. But she tells RFE/RL that some people may consider the U.S. attitude admirable.

"It's all in the eye of the beholder, I would say. Some people will see it as an embarrassment. Other people will see it as another...well, as the United States administration being principled in its position, in its opposing of the ICC," Uzelec says.

Uzelec says she thinks the Security Council will find an approach that will allow the international community to express its condemnation of what is happening in Darfur. She says one possibility is that the United States and China might be persuaded to withhold their veto powers in the Security Council if the referral is couched in watered-down terms.

"I think that what we can witness is anything from veto to a very weak referral of the case to the ICC, where countries like the U.S. and China may actually choose simply to abstain from voting if the referral is weak enough," Uzelec says. "There's a lot of negotiation happening."

The Darfur tragedy began in 2003 when armed tribal Sudanese of African origin challenged their government, which is controlled by minority Arab Sudanese, over what they called years of state neglect and discrimination. The government lashed back with a counterinsurgency campaign during which the Arab Janjawid militia commenced the documented abuses and killings.