(CNSNews.com) – Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting leader to be indicted for war crimes by an international court, has now become the first leader in that position to win re-election.
In a result that underlined the inability of the International Criminal Court to enforce its decisions, Bashir of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) was declared winner Monday with 68 percent of the vote. Bashir has ruled Sudan since leading a military coup in 1989.
The election was plagued by opposition boycotts and vote-rigging and intimidation allegations, with Western observers concluding that it fell well below international standards. (A parliamentary monitoring group from Islamic states, by contrast, said the vote took place “in an atmosphere of calmness, peace, security, transparency and freedom,” the semi-official Sudan Media Center reported.)
Days before the vote, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) withdrew its candidate in the national presidential poll, Yassir Arman, citing irregularities. Arman’s name remained on the ballot, however, and he received almost 22 percent of the vote. It was unclear whether this reflected voter confusion or a protest against Bashir.
Alongside the national presidential election, voters in southern Sudan handed a 93 percent victory to Salva Kiir of the SPLM, who retains his post as president of the semi-autonomous region. The mostly Christian and animist south is due to hold a referendum in early 2011 on whether to secede from the predominantly Muslim, Arab-dominated north.
This month’s elections and next January’s referendum are key steps in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which formally ended the long and devastating north-south civil war.
It was in relation to another conflict, the one that erupted in the western Darfur region in 2003, that International Criminal Court (ICC) judges in March 2009 issued a warrant of arrest for Bashir on changes of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The U.N. estimates that around 300,000 lives have been lost since fighting broke out between militias backed by Khartoum and Darfurian rebel groups, and that some 2.7 million people have been displaced.
Khartoum refused to cooperate with the ICC, and the tribunal’s credibility has taken repeated blows as Bashir travels freely around the Arab world.
The U.N. Security Council – which referred the Darfur matter to the ICC in the first place in 2005 – has urged all governments to cooperate with the court, but this has not stopped countries including Egypt, Qatar and Libya from hosting Bashir.
He was even invited to attend the U.N.’s Copenhagen climate summit late last year, although in the end he chose not to attend.
The Bashir indictment highlighted a global divide between mostly Western governments wanting the ICC decision to be followed through, and Arab, Islamic and many African countries which reject it.
Some critics view the move as a Western campaign targeting oil-rich Sudan and the Arab world in general, with the Islamic bloc saying a legal issue was being inappropriately politicized; others have focused on the alleged harm it could do to efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Critics of Khartoum worried ahead of the election that Bashir would view victory as a legitimization of his rule and a rebuke to the ICC charges. After the results were announced Monday, he alluded to this, saying in an appearance on television that the people of Sudan “have achieved this moral victory before the eyes of the world.”
Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday the election result had no legal effect on the pending ICC charges.
The United States has historically been wary of the ICC, concerned about the possibility that American citizens, especially members of the armed forces, could be targeted for politically-motivated prosecutions
President Clinton signed the treaty that created the ICC, the Rome Statute, but did not seek Senate ratification. President Bush in 2002 withdrew the signature. (The Bush administration did, however, allow the 2005 Security Council resolution referring Darfur to the ICC to go ahead, abstaining rather than vetoing it.)
The Obama administration has been more sympathetic towards the ICC, and last November participated, as an observer, at an assembly of Rome Statute parties. No decision on reversing Bush’s move has yet been announced.
‘As stakes rise, the administration’s bar drops’
Ahead of the Sudan election, Sudan/Darfur activists expressed concern about Western governments being seen to endorse a process which returns to power an indicted war crimes suspect.
In a statement last week signaling that the U.S. would accept the outcome, the White House on one hand called the election an “essential step” in the CPA process and on the other noted observers’ assessment that it “did not meet international standards.”
Advocacy groups were not impressed, noting that the Obama administration’s new Sudan policy, announced last October, promised both “incentives” to push the CPA process forward and consequences for any party not meeting benchmarks.
The Save Darfur Coalition said despite that policy the White House statement on the poll “neglects to assign responsibility and consequences for the failure of dictator Omar al-Bashir to create the conditions for a free and fair election.”
“President Obama must lead world leaders to not recognize Bashir as a legitimately elected leader and to press for meaningful steps towards political freedom in Sudan in the run up to next year’s referendum,” said the coalition’s acting head, Mark Lotwis.
“The stakes continue to get higher in Sudan, and the administration’s bar for moving forward continues to get lower,” said John Prendergast of Enough, a Center for American Progress project focusing on genocide and crimes against humanity.
January’s referendum will decide whether the south – which accounts for most of Sudan’s oil reserves – will remain part of a unified Sudan or become a new, independent state.
Washington’s ambassador to the African Union, Michael Battle, was quoted by NPR Monday as saying “the U.S. government does not have, as they say, a dog in this fight in the sense that we are not trying to encourage a separation, nor are we trying to force Sudan to remain intact.”
“But we do want to respect the fact that the southern Sudanese have the right to vote in 2011,” he said.
Predictions of an overwhelming vote for secession have prompted concerns that regionally-destabilizing violence could return, despite an undertaking by Bashir to accept the outcome either way.
Abyei, an oil-rich region along the unresolved north-south border is a particular flashpoint, and fighting there at the weekend reportedly left 55 people dead. Alongside the referendum on national unity versus secession, Abyei’s inhabitants will separately decide whether to join the north or the south.