Monday, March 16, 2009

Western IGOs' Misguided Altruism May Doom Darfur

As you, dear reader, probably know by now, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on March 4th. I'll admit, even I was a bit excited over the matter, when it was first leaked. Though Mr. Bashir's reaction to the leak (before the point of no return on unsealing the warrant) started to worry me, and it turns out there were good grounds for such worry.

The ultimate problem with such a warrant is that it greatly escalates a conflict between Sudan's government and the International Community. For Bashir himself, it takes away any residual incentive that might have possibly been left for him to cooperate, therefore turning him into a rational--and dangerous--rogue actor (this failure to understand incentives is actually something I have had the opportunity to criticize the UN and ICC on in a report that we haven't published openly yet). Now Bashir has every incentive in the world to make sure that people with a loyalty to an ICC member state, the UN, or the International Community in general is expelled from the country, lest they are able to find a way to make his life more difficult, or make sure he is arrested. And, given that he is not being given any options to win his way to redemption, he has no incentive to make his life even marginally more difficult to be helpful (even in cases that might not directly endanger his life or freedom).

Furthermore, it gives him perverse domestic incentives. As much as it is surprising to believe, Bashir has an electing constituency, and is facing elections this very year! And, indeed, he is using the ICC's action to whip up nationalist fervor in Sudan. For the moment, Sudan's executive electoral system is still one-vote majoritarian run-off (meaning that each person votes once, and the winner is that with 50% of the vote; if they do not get 50%, the top two candidates run-off), and the Arabic-speaking-Muslim population of Sudan is well more than 50% of the country. And they're not happy. The warrant is seen as a pinnacle of international meddling in what many Sudanese see as a nasty civil war, started and perpetuated by non-patriotic Darfurian rebels (which is a partially-true story of the civil war). To get an idea of why this reaction is happening, imagine if the ICC had issued a warrant for the arrest of President Bush, while he was about to run for re-election. Suddenly, his decision to (probably) torture captured combatants, and his War in Iraq that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths becomes much less important than the fact that Europe is trying to actually gank the American president, while in power, humiliate the country, and throw him in jail. Now imagine you've been told that Europeans are out to crush your very religion, and that they are primarily responsible for your economic woes (of which you have many). Then imagine that you have been fighting some sort of civil war for the last 30 years, and how much you actually care about collateral damage. Then you'll get some idea of how well-received this warrant might be among the larger chunk of Sudanese people.

So, it's out with foreign aid agencies. In addition to protecting himself from potential agents of the ICC, Bashir is using a strong response as a sign that he's "not going to take it anymore" from seemingly condescending, cappuccino-sipping, Ivory-Tower Europeans, and that's going to make him outrageously popular. Also, he's marking a deterrent, for what it's worth. The ICC and UN are not the same body, but they're much like two cousins that you have a lot of trouble telling apart. Oh, and by the way: it was the UN Security Council that unanimously referred the Darfur case to the ICC (the ICC would have been powerless without that referral). So now that the UN has decided to try and mess with Bashir and the sovereign leadership of his country, it's actually a pretty popular move to boot out everyone even remotely related to the UN or ICC, if for no other reason than to teach them a lesson, and to not be a sucker.

So, the ICC, and the UN, have indirectly (though rather clumsily) made life a lot harder for the victims of the Darfur war. Lots of critical aid is either gone, or will be within a year. Food will stop being delivered, refugee camps will stop being protected, civil service will fall apart, etc etc. It will be bad. Heck, even the Obama administration's plans are being derailed by the expulsion of NGOs and aid groups. Lots of people are going to suffer. The ICC could probably cut a deal with Bashir and withdraw the warrant in exchange for a reinstatement of all these aid programs, but it won't do that. And, to be fair, it probably can't--it would destroy forever what little effectiveness the ICC and the UN may now have. But they played chicken with Omar al-Bashir, and for now, he will probably sleep well knowing that all those that slighted him are bearing great guilt over the excess death and suffering of millions of people.

Now, many will say, "hold on, this is Justice." And indeed, it is, and Justice needs be served, in particular to make the next genocidal maniac tinpot dictator think twice about doing this ever again--because, indeed, Bashir deserves a thousand life sentences, and more. And, more importantly, we want to have institutional capabilities to make sure this doesn't happen again.

But, as they say, discretion is the better part of valour. And the ICC this month has forgotten their discretion in the name of glory and grandstanding. The timing could not have been worse. Bashir is up for re-election this late spring or early summer, and is constantly campaigning. He obviously can't afford to look weak. Additionally, the Darfurians and Sudanese had literally just sat down in Qatar and agreed to new rounds of peace talks--talks that the JEM felt might finally end their impetus to fight, and, at the very least, end government support of the Janjaweed. Additionally, just when the UN needs the help of the African Union, Sudan's neighbors, and the international community, it has managed to fully alienate almost every predominantly-Muslim state in Africa. (Eg: Egypt, the Arab League)

Perhaps not all of these outcomes were predictable, but some of them certainly were, and it boggles the mind to think that nobody clever in the UN or the ICC though that a genocidal maniac dictator might find a way to react negatively to a warrant for his arrest by a bunch of Europeans. The ICC even has the discretion to keep a warrant sealed, and they chose to unseal it. Waiting, in this case, would have been wise--at least to see where the new Qatari peace talks were going.

But, today, the UN and the ICC stand guilty of grossly misguided altruism. A "we must do something" attitude can so often lead to terrible consequences, and here they come. This warrant may have set back the Darfur peace process, aid and relief process, and even justice process farther than it has been set back in a long time.
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