President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan left South Africa on Monday morning by private jet after attending the African Union Summit, despite an order from the South African High Court to prevent his departure. This represents another setback to the International Criminal Court’s six-year campaign to bring him to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This wasn’t the first round of controversy in South Africa about Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in perpetrating atrocities in Darfur, where at least 2.5 million people have been displaced and hundreds of thousands killed since 2003. In 2009, Bashir was blocked from entering the country to attend President-elect Jacob Zuma’s inauguration under threat of arrest.
But Bashir, having visited five countries in the past year and gaining support from members of the African Union, thought this time would be different. Credit must be given to South African civil society, including the Southern African Litigation Centre, who began the legal proceedings for an arrest order, and the High Court of South Africa, for taking action toward accountability for Bashir.
Now South Africa has an internal constitutional crisis. By allowing Bashir to visit and then to flee the country, despite an order by the High Court to bar his exit and to arrest Bashir, South Africa has violated its own constitution. South Africa’s failure to arrest Bashir is yet another step backwards to hold perpetrators accountable for the world’s worst crimes and requires a proportionally strong response by the UN Security Council, the body that referred the Darfur case to the International Criminal Court in the first place.
At the minimum, the Security Council should hold South Africa accountable. It can start by demanding a full investigation as to how Bashir was allowed to escape after the High Court issued his arrest warrant.
But the Security Council must take a look at itself too. Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court put the investigations into war crimes in Darfur on “hibernation” in December 2014 because of the lack of progress and support from the Council. Case in point, China, one of the “Permanent Five” members of the Security Council that wields veto power over all resolutions, actually invited Bashir to visit this upcoming year.
As blame gets spread for South Africa’s – and the other 17 countries who have allowed Bashir across their borders since the ICC issued the arrest warrant – failure to detain Bashir, it should not be lost that Bashir was forced to flee like the fugitive he is rather than a respected head of state. Now it’s time for a global pursuit to catch Bashir and put him where he belongs, behind bars.
What is at stake is not only justice for the hundreds of thousands of Bashir’s victims in Darfur, but every victim of a genocide today and in the in the future. Whether Bashir is sent to the ICC speaks volumes about whether government leaders – including the U.S. and other members of the UN Security Council – are willing to walk the walk to stop genocide.