Human Rights Watch rarely lauds the Bush administration. But when it comes to supporting international efforts to prosecute Sudanese leaders for their slaughter in Darfur, the administration so far has it right.
The International Criminal Court's prosecutor is seeking an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the atrocities he allegedly directed in Darfur. Sudan's government is trying to convince the United Nations Security Council to suspend the prosecution.
On the one hand, Khartoum has launched a charm offensive, announcing on Nov. 12 yet another cease-fire and peace initiative. On the other hand, it is subtly threatening violence against civilians, peacekeepers and humanitarian workers should prosecution proceed. Backing Sudan are Libya and China, as well as South Africa -- whose concept of African solidarity tends to favor African persecutors over their African victims.
Surprisingly, the toughest governmental defender of the proposed indictment is the Bush administration -- which entered office vowing to undermine the ICC because of the theoretical possibility that it might someday prosecute an American. The administration "unsigned" the ICC treaty, cut off military aid to close allies that wouldn't foreswear ever surrendering an American for trial, and encouraged Congress to authorize invading The Hague should the ICC ever hold an American suspect there.
Yet today, Washington's desire to hold Mr. Bashir to account has made even a strong ICC backer like France seem weak by comparison. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that, to suspend prosecution, Mr. Bashir must "totally change his policy." But when he refused to surrender two other suspects to the ICC, Mr. Sarkozy obligingly suggested that it would suffice for one merely to resign his ministerial post. France has since backed off that concession, but fears remain it will settle for mere promises of good behavior from the serial liars in Khartoum rather than the "radical and immediate" change it claims to be demanding.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has let it be known that, in the unlikely event that Sudan attracted the nine of 15 votes needed for the Security Council to suspend prosecution, it would veto the effort. That's the right thing to do, because if the Security Council were to succumb to Mr. Bashir's blackmail, it would only encourage more of the same from every tyrant or warlord who might fall into the ICC's sights. Any mass murderer could secure impunity for his crimes by simply threatening more mass murder.
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Will prosecuting Mr. Bashir make it more difficult to secure peace in Darfur? Any head of state facing criminal charges might want to fight on to avoid capture and prosecution. But history shows that indictment for mass atrocities profoundly undermines a leader's legitimacy and authority. Predictions of fatal consequences for peace negotiations also attended the indictments of Liberian President Charles Taylor, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. But the charges ended up reducing their power and facilitating peace.
If Mr. Bashir does intensify the violence in Darfur, the right response is not capitulation but a redoubling of efforts to protect the people there, and to apprehend and prosecute the blackmailer.
The Bush administration's support for accountability is a logical consequence of its longstanding commitment to end atrocities in Darfur. It also reflects a broader reassessment of the ICC.
Contrary to early fears, the ICC has acted with restraint and professionalism. Its prosecutions, whether of the warlords of eastern Congo, the child-soldier recruiters of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army or the killers of Khartoum, all accord with U.S. interests, as well as basic decency. President-elect Barack Obama should continue that approach, and embrace the ICC as an important tool to combat mass atrocities.
Mr. Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.