For a man with an international arrest warrant hanging over his head on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir gets around.
In March, he flew to Indonesia to attend a summit of Muslim countries and to Egypt for an investment forum. He visited Ethiopia in January and plans another trip there this weekend.
But his Thursday stop in Uganda prompted a minor diplomatic flap when he attended the inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 30 years. Museveni introduced Bashir onstage, giving a backhand to the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president in 2009 for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
Uganda had invited Bashir, said Museveni. The Ugandan leader then called the court in The Hague a “useless body” run by “a bunch of useless people.”
Bashir’s presence and Museveni’s dismissive remarks prompted a highly unusual walkout by diplomats from Canada, Europe and the United States, among them the U.S. ambassador and a deputy assistant secretary of state. Uganda is a longtime U.S. ally.
“We believe that walking out in protest is an appropriate reaction to a head of state mocking efforts to ensure accountability for victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, a spokeswoman for the State Department.
This was not the first controversy over Bashir’s peregrinations, which are tracked by human rights organizations on the website BashirWatch.
Several demanded China and India arrest him when he visited those countries last year, although neither has signed the agreement that established the court in 2002 and requires members to act on its arrest warrants. Uganda is a member.
But Bashir had to flee South Africa, which is also a member of the ICC, when a court there ruled he should not be allowed to leave and could be arrested during a visit last year. South Africa’s Supreme Court later criticized the government for shielding him.
Many African leaders have denounced the ICC as a neocolonial tool because almost all of its investigations have involved war crimes in Africa; a court list of preliminary investigations is more geographically diverse.
The events in Uganda underscored both the lofty ideals of the court and its limitations.
“A core claim held by champions of international justice is that by the mere fact it exists, perpetrators and potential perpetrators will be marginalized,” said Mark Kersten, a research fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, who studies the court.
“The fact diplomats from Europe, Canada and the United States walked out shows they don’t want to rub shoulders with him. But it also shows it’s not working, because he was there in the first place.”
Elizabeth M. Ramey, a scholar with the Africa Program at the Wilson Center, said the ICC cases in Africa are all justified and that the South African Supreme Court decision shows some Africans support the court’s work.
But resentment is growing, and the walkout’s impact may be fleeting.
“It’s purpose was to say, ‘For all the talk about the flaws of the criminal court, you can’t forget the many victims of genocide and crimes against humanity for whom the court was created,’ ” said Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it feeds the narrative of Western imperial arrogance that some leaders like to play on.”