Joan Smith: Dictators are rattled because their days are numbered

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The Independent Online

You don't often see a fugitive from justice ranting on primetime TV, so last week's pictures of Sudan's appalling president, Omar al-Bashir, were something to be savoured. Bashir had just heard that an international arrest warrant had been issued in his name, indicting him for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the eastern province of Darfur, and he didn't like it one bit.

At a rally in Khartoum, he denounced the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a stooge of the West and claimed that Sudan was being punished for refusing to kneel to colonialism. But the fact remains that he has been charged with murder, torture, rape, forcible transfer and intentionally directing attacks against civilians. Bashir faces arrest if he travels to any of the countries that have signed up to the ICC, and his official status in the international community is that of a fugitive from justice.

He reacted to the warrant with characteristic spite, ordering 10 NGOs to leave Sudan and thus endangering the lives of millions of people who depend on them for food, water and protection. This is very bad news but it's clear that the responsibility lies squarely with Bashir and not with the ICC or the UN Security Council, which passed a resolution referring him to the court as long ago as 2005.

Like Saddam Hussein, Bashir appears to be utterly without conscience, having already presided over the deaths of some 300,000 people in Darfur from war and famine and the displacement of around 2.7 million. Unlike Saddam, Bashir is an Islamist who imposed sharia after he seized power in a coup in 1989 and sheltered Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Two days ago the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, urged Bashir to allow the NGOs to stay, while the African Union appointed the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, to chair a committee to investigate human rights abuses in Darfur.

Mbeki hardly seems an ideal choice, having shielded his equally dreadful mentor Robert Mugabe for many years, but this flurry of diplomatic activity demonstrates how seriously the court's action is being taken. Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be indicted, and he would now have limited travel options if he were overthrown and forced to leave Sudan.

Last year the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo; he was arrested in Belgium the very next day and handed over to the court. The ICC has jurisdiction only over crimes committed since its inception in 2002, but other tyrants have been forced to appear at a series of international tribunals set up by the UN.

This has nothing to do with colonialism and it isn't directed exclusively at African dictators; the former president of Liberia Charles Taylor is currently on trial at The Hague, but so is the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who refused to enter a plea when his trial opened last week. The British government has agreed to allow Taylor to serve his sentence in a British prison if he is convicted, but there is a growing feeling that he should do time in Sierra Leone, where so many of his crimes were committed.

In a world where the scope and appetite for military intervention are limited after the disaster of the Iraq war, these are the early stages in an alternative process based on international law. Dictators the world over are realising that they may one day be called to account, and it's got them rattled. Behind Bashir's public show of defiance last week there is, I suspect, a very worried man.