Try President Bashir, But Prepare For The Consequences

By Jirair Ratevosian and Karen Hirschfeld

History shows us while we cannot trust Sudan's genocidal leader Omar al-Bashir to make good on his promises of peace, we can believe his threats of future violence. Any day now, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will decide whether or not to issue an arrest warrant against Bashir for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

Nowhere would the decision to try Bashir be more welcome than in the refugee camps in Chad. In November, investigators from Physicians for Human Rights went there to collect the testimony of nearly 100 women who witnessed unimaginable horrors orchestrated by Bashir and committed against their families when their villages were attacked in Darfur some five years ago.

The women, saddened to their core, expressed surprisingly little ill will against their attackers, some of whom robbed the women of their dignity by raping them in front of their husbands or children. But many had nothing but enmity for the man they blame for the deaths of their loved ones, the destruction of their homes and villages, and the tearing apart of their communities and culture: Omar al-Bashir. "Old women will get up and dance if Bashir is arrested," said one woman whose son and husband were killed in the aerial bombardment of her village, who herself spent six months in hospital healing from shrapnel wounds. Other women called the attackers -- both the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Janjaweed militias "Bashir's men".

It was clear to these women that Bashir is the evil mastermind of the genocide that has befallen their people, and he must be taken from power and held to account for his actions. While many had heard about the ICC and hope that Bashir will be tried, few of them knew that the Court's decision on whether or not to try him for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide was imminent.

Terrified of being tried at the ICC, President Bashir has threatened to expel the UN peacekeepers in Darfur and accelerate the violence targeted at millions of innocent Darfuris and other marginalized Sudanese civilians. Bashir has also threatened to cut-off humanitarian aid on which civilians rely for survival, an act in itself considered to be a crime against humanity. Such violations give the international community a legal right of intervention, with force if necessary.

We cannot afford to call Bashir's bluff. He has proven too many times that his threats of violence are not idle ones. And, as neither the international community nor the US in particular, have held Bashir to account for any of his past actions, he has no incentive to stop the brutal campaign of genocide against his own people. Indeed, in 2008 alone, Bashir's army and Janjaweed militias attacked villages and camps for the internally displaced in Darfur at least 43 times.

There is no question that Bashir has earned his day in Court. But the world must take Bashir"s threats of "more violence and blood in Darfur" seriously and prepare accordingly. The apparent lack of contingency planning by the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the European Union (which has a small peacekeeping force protecting civilians and humanitarians in neighboring Chad) or the leaders of the international community is worrisome.

Even before President-elect Obama turns his attention to ending the genocide in Darfur and implementing a comprehensive policy for achieving sustainable peace in all of Sudan (including a focus on ensuring free and fair elections in 2009), he must work swiftly and resolutely with other world leaders to prevent any actions by Bashir that would pose an immediate threat to the lives of the millions of vulnerable Darfuri citizens if the Court case proceeds.

In this week's confirmation hearings, Secretary of State-designate, Hillary Clinton, should discuss how she plans to work with her counterparts to ensure civilian protection in Darfur if the ICC decides to try President Bashir.

The ICC case should go forward: Darfuris deserve justice for the horrors that have been inflicted upon them and the perpetrators should be punished. But the world must prepare now, rather than mourn and hand-wring later.

Karen Hirschfeld is Director of the Darfur Survival Campaign for Physicians for Human Rights. She recently led a four-person team to Chad to investigate the physical and mental health status of Darfuri refugee women.