For a short while over the weekend it looked like we might all be witness to the rarest of things, an actual case of justice being done. Omar al-Bashir, who’s been “president” of Sudan since 1989 (after 26 years, it’s probably safe to call him a dictator, yes?), was legally detained while attending the African Union summit in South Africa, as a South African court decided whether or not he should be turned over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The ICC issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest way back in 2009 on account of how he is a massive war criminal who is personally responsible for directing the horrific ethnic cleansing campaign that has waged by Khartoum against the people of Darfur since 2003, allegedly (innocent until proven guilty and all, but just to be clear this guy is guilty). The outstanding warrant makes it difficult for Bashir to travel outside of Sudan, which is an odd restriction for a head of state, but South Africa issued blanket immunity for attendees to the AU summit, so he figured he’d be safe there. A South African human rights group filed an application to arrest Bashir anyway (as an ICC member, South Africa was technically required to arrest the guy), and it was while this case was being heard that the court barred Bashir from leaving the country and his future as a free war criminal was in question.
Turns out Bashir got home OK, so you can all rest easy. He hopped a flight back to Khartoum this morning, despite the court order. This may cause something of a political crisis for South Africa, since the high court has said that the government was legally required to hold Bashir, and it, well, didn’t. This is also a bit of an embarrassment for the ICC, to have a member state pretty much tell it to screw off by completely disregarding its obligations under ICC rules. On the other hand, as the host of the AU summit, South Africa was under some diplomatic obligations with respect to the health and safety of its attendees, and arresting Bashir might have had negative repercussions in that regard, so Jacob Zuma’s government was really in a no-win situation here. That it so readily chose its AU obligations over its ICC obligations in part reflects the weakness of the latter institution, but also reflects a growing Africa-wide sentiment that the ICC lately seems uniquely focused on indicting African figures to the exclusion of bad actors in the rest of the world (literally, all of the court’s open indictments are Africans), which given the ICC’s European roots kind of gives its whole operation a negative, colonialism-lite tinge.