By Khaled Diab
If Arabs want their concerns about other nations' war crimes to be taken seriously, then they should not be welcoming Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to their countries and summits.
With the way Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been jetting around the Middle East and Africa, you might be excused for thinking he was not a wanted man. In recent weeks, he has visited half a dozen countries, including Eritrea and Egypt, both of which are signatories (pdf) to the International Criminal Court but have not yet ratified the Rome Statute establishing it.
The world's most wanted head of state topped it all off with an Arab summit in Doha which reiterated “our solidarity with Sudan and our rejection of the measure of the … International Criminal Court against his Excellency”. Bashir explained his decision to attend the summit as “a message to the western world that Sudan will not be isolated”.
Perhaps trying to show he is at peace with his conscience or as a secret plea for divine intervention, the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes flew to Saudi Arabia to perform an umra, or mini pilgrimage. He even defiantly said that he was willing to attend the annual UN general assembly, if he was invited.
Many Arabs and Africans see Bashir's indictment as a manifestation of racism, western imperialism under a different guise, especially given the fact that the only cases currently before the ICC are all against Africans.
Some will dismiss these concerns with a glib assertion that justice is blind and that Arabs and Africans are being hypocritical in their defence of a war criminal. But there is a strong whiff of – if not hypocrisy – double standards and of picking a soft target in the ICC's decision to pursue the Sudanese president. For instance, I recently outlined the strong arguments for indicting George W Bush for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
So why has the ICC not started similar proceedings against the former US president? Because the US has not signed up to the ICC and so the court has no jurisdiction over Americans? Well, the same applies to Sudan which, like the US and Israel, has also indicated that it will not ratify the Rome Statute. The answer is, of course, obvious: justice may be blind, but she has a sixth sense that tells her not to mess with the big guys.
Just like many Arabs are outraged that the ICC should indict Bashir, many Americans get furious at the mere suggestion that their own leaders might be criminal mass murderers. After the publication of my Bush article, one furious American, who called me a “moon worshipper” without explaining what that meant, emailed me to ask how I dared question the intentions of the “great” George W Bush, and to inform me that his only regret was that the former president had not killed more Arabs.
What this proves is that making exceptions for your own side is not exceptional and that hypocrisy knows no national or cultural boundaries. But if the west wishes its moral stances to be taken seriously by its former colonies, where some of the world's most serious crimes against humanity are committed, then it has to be seen to be pursuing justice whether it involves friends or foes.
“How can an ordinary citizen in the Arab or Muslim world believe that the international community applies international law [impartially] and is concerned about the welfare of Muslims in Darfur… at a time when the rights of millions of Arabs and Muslims are violated in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and other places?” asks Hassan Nafe'ah, an Egyptian expert in international law. “We don't object to trying Bashir and any other Arab tyrant, as long as they are preceded by Bush and Olmert and others of their ilk,” he concludes.
Pointing fingers at western hypocrisy is, in itself, not a sufficient defence, since double standards are duplicity whether practised by the powerful or the weak. If Arabs wish their concerns over atrocities committed by the US in Iraq or Israel in Gaza to be taken seriously, they need to apply similar standards to their allies. That does not mean they have to hand Bashir over to the ICC, especially given their fears that it could destabilise Sudan, but, at the very least, they should condemn his two decades of terror and ostracise him for the crimes he has committed against his own people.
Bashir's two decades ruling Sudan have been a constant chain of conflict and war – from the civil war between north and south to the more recent conflict in Darfur – in which the total body count is unknown but could be anywhere between two and three million.
There is a widespread belief that, in the ugly balance of reality, African and Arab lives are worth less that western ones. But by expressing solidarity with a known mass murderer, Arabs and Africans are also cheapening the value of their own lives.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 8 April 2009. Read the related discussion.