The Odious Guest and Citizen-led Accountability: Will South Africa Pass the Test?

The Odious Guest and Citizen-led Accountability: Will South Africa Pass the Test? The prospect of yesterday’s freedom fighter becoming today’s accomplice is dismaying for a country with such a revered history of fighting injustice.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is not your typical transnational fugitive. The first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), al-Bashir has resided comfortably in Khartoum since charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were brought against him in 2009. In spite of widespread international opprobrium over the decade long bloodshed in Darfur, al-Bashir not only continues to lead a public life but also regularly travels to other countries, attending official functions in his capacity as the Sudanese head of state. Since 2009, al-Bashir has traveled across several continents, making trips to countries including Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and China among others. His current liberty highlights not only the dearth of an effective enforcement arm at the ICC but also illustrates the reticence of world leaders to abide by their obligations and responsibilities as political and legal authorities. Such trends have in turn undermined established standards of international law.

Recently, al-Bashir was invited to attend the African Union (AU) Summit in South Africa, scheduled to take place from the 7th to the 15th of June. As a member of the ICC and the United Nations (UN), South Africa would be violating international law if it did not comply with the ICC warrant to arrest and surrender al-Bashir. Yet his invitation is also at odds with domestic law, given South Africa’s implementation of the ICC Act of 2002. As a result, the Rainbow Nation is playing politics at the expense of the rule of law, a worrying development for a country that has undergone a prolonged struggle for justice and human rights.

The invitation of the infamous fugitive represents both an opportunity and a challenge for Africa’s leading democracy. South African authorities may have extended an invitation to al-Bashir as a formality, ready to abide by their legal obligations under the Rome Statute and arrest and surrender the autocrat if he decides to enter their territory. However, the invitation could also represent President Jacob Zuma’s attempt to take the law into his own hands and violate both domestic and international law. Regardless of the government’s intentions, the people of South Africa retain momentous influence over their policymakers. President Zuma may be able to snub Darfur’s calls for justice, yet he cannot ignore his people. Hence, it is imperative that South Africans hold their government accountable for its actions.

In light of this, Darfur Women Action Group (DWAG) and its partners have not let the ambiguous actions of the South African government go unnoticed. Bashir Watch, a coalition of human rights groups, recently sent a letter pressuring the South African authorities to respect the rule of law. The letter was penned on behalf of a diverse group of civil society organizations including the Coalition of the International Criminal Court, the International Justice Project, United to End Genocide, Waging Peace, UK and DWAG. The coalition’s efforts have been successful on numerous occasions, most notably in preventing President al-Bashir’s notorious attempt to visit the United States for a UN summit. These organizations have focused on keeping not only the Sudanese authorities accountable for the atrocities committed in Darfur, but also the international community in its lackluster response to the unremitting barbarity that has ravaged Sudan’s remote region. As governments attempt to walk away from their responsibilities, citizens must be empowered to hold their leaders accountable and remind them of their obligations, an approach that DWAG has worked tirelessly to promote. Non-state actors shouldn’t have to bear the burden of fighting genocide, yet Darfur’s abandonment by the international community leaves those with a conscience no other choice but to remain true to the 20th century’s harshest lesson: ‘’never again’’.