Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir certainly thumbed his nose at the International Criminal Court (ICC) with his whirlwind round of whistle-stops in Egypt, Eritrea and Libya last week. Now in a further bit of political theatre, he is in Doha, Qatar this week, along with most -- but not all -- of the leaders of the Arab League. Notably absent is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, who is still fuming with the Qataris over disagreements surrounding the recent Gaza crisis and also by the fact that the Iranians were invited.
Al-Bashir's presence in Doha will also be something of an embarrassment for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, also a guest at the conference. Ban must dance delicately around the issue of the Security Council-inspired ICC indictment against al-Bashir, and the fact that al-Bashir is still the head of a U.N. member state.
Qatar is a U.S. ally and host to a large U.S. military presence. But along with most other Arab states, the Qataris have not signed the treaty that would authorize them to turn over al-Bashir. No matter how irksome al-Bashir's presence might be to the U.S., the State Department is unlikely to put much pressure on the Qataris regarding al-Bashir, since there is too much at stake for U.S. strategic interests in keeping Qatar in the friend column.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has dismissed al-Bashir's forays out of Sudan as acts of desperation, claiming that the Sudanese leader "can't travel far." Nevertheless it is clear that al-Bashir, unlike other indictees, has strong international support as well as the backing of superpower China. The show of support for al-Bashir in Doha does not seem so much an act of desperation as a carefully orchestrated public relations move to show the people of Sudan that he is still in charge. More importantly, it is meant to demonstrate to Moreno-Ocampo, who al-Bashir has characterized as a "neo-colonialist," that the rule-of-law is not a universal concept.
President Barack Obama has said he will review the U.S.' reluctance to sign on to the ICC, which the Bush administration characterized as contrary to America's interests and constitutional prerogatives. American adhesion will go a long way toward adding teeth to the ICC's jurisdiction. In the meantime, each time al-Bashir pops out of Sudan, the ICC will seem more like a talk-shop and less the global sheriff it would like to be.
(First published March 30, 2009 in World Politics Review)