Leading article: Peace is more pressing than justice

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If the International Criminal Court is to have any validity, it should be to pursue individuals such as President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan with charges of crimes against humanity. The court was set up in 2002 to bring to justice the perpetrators of precisely the sort of civilian massacre that we have witnessed in Darfur. In the five years since the uprising against Sudanese rule began in this province, over quarter of a million civilians have been killed and several million displaced. You can call it genocide or just plain slaughter. But the reality is there for all to see, and the complicity of the Sudanese government has been attested by virtually everyone who has been there.

Only the question intrudes: what good will an international case against Bashir do for the poor victims of this terrible and remorseless war? Issuing international warrants for arrest against the Sudanese leader – the first sitting head of state to be indicted – may make the West feel better about its own failure to do anything to stop the death and destruction in the region. But moral satisfaction in the Hague won't do much for the dying in Darfur.

Indeed, it could be counter-productive, as the regime in Khartoum responds by lashing out against what it regards as its Western persecutors, forcing the UN to withdraw non-essential staff and the aid agencies to curb their activities. Far from undermining President Bashir, the threat of court action has only strengthened his determination to resist outside pressure in the peace talks now under way. Far from reducing his standing with fellow African leaders, it has drawn sympathy and support against what Africa sees as a court assault aimed almost exclusively against their continent.

The threat of violence should not be allowed to stay the hand of justice. But the reality of this conflict is that, short of invading the country, the outside world has to depend on Sudanese co-operation to bring a measure of peace to Darfur. And the further reality is that this is a civil war in which demonising one side only encourages the other side to push its claims even more violently. It is at bottom a war of territory and a war of resources. Outsiders willy-nilly become participants rather than umpires of its ebb and flow.

The West's responsibility is not to grandstand for the sake of its own self-esteem but to help as best it can the victims of continuing conflict. So far the accusation of genocide has been levelled by the chief prosecutor of the ICC. It hasn't been translated into an actual warrant of arrest. If the court is wise, it will restrain itself from that act of total confrontation. Enough innocent blood has been shed already in Darfur. The concentration now should be on peace talks, however loathsome some of the participants.

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