UNITED NATIONS — When Luis Moreno-Ocampo charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with war crimes last year, the International Criminal Court prosecutor was hailed by human rights advocates as the man who could help bring justice to Darfur.
Today, Moreno-Ocampo appears to be the one on trial, with even some of his early supporters questioning his prosecutorial strategy, his use of facts and his personal conduct. Bashir and others have used the controversy to rally opposition to the world’s first permanent criminal court, a challenge that may jeopardize efforts to determine who is responsible for massive crimes in Darfur.
At issue is how to strike a balance between the quest for justice in Darfur and the pursuit of a political settlement to end an ongoing civil war in the western region of Sudan. In recent months, African and Arab leaders have said the Argentine lawyer’s pursuit of the Sudanese president has undercut those peace prospects.
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and Gabon’s Jean Ping, the two leaders of the African Union, are mounting a campaign to press African states to withdraw from the treaty body that established the international tribunal. “The attacks against the court by African and Arab governments in the last nine months are the most serious threat to the ICC” since the United States declared its opposition to it in 2002, said William Pace, who heads the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an alliance of 2500 organizations.
Moreno-Ocampo defended his work in a lengthy interview, saying that his office offers the brightest hope of bringing justice to hundreds of thousands of African victims and halting mass murder in Darfur. “It is normal: When you prosecute people with a lot of power, you have problems,” said Moreno-Ocampo, who first gained prominence by prosecuting Argentine generals for ordering mass murder in that country’s “dirty war.”
The International Criminal Court was established in July 2002 to prosecute perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, building on temporary courts in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.
Since he was appointed in 2003, the prosecutor has brought war crimes charges against 13 individuals in northern Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan, including a July 2008 charge against Bashir of orchestrating genocide in Darfur. Pretrial judges approved the prosecutors’ request for an arrest warrant for Bashir on March 4 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but rejected the genocide charge.
The Bush administration initially opposed the court, citing concerns of frivolous investigations of American soldiers engaged in the fight against terrorism. But President Obama — whose top advisers are divided over whether Sudan continues to commit genocide — has been far more supportive of the court.
The violence in Darfur began in early 2003 when rebel movements took up arms against the Islamic government, citing discrimination against the region’s tribes. The prosecutor has charged that Bashir then orchestrated a campaign of genocide that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Darfurian civilians from disease and violence, and driven about 2 million more from their homes.
Bashir has openly defied the court, saying that it has only strengthened his standing. “The court has been isolated and the prosecutor stands naked,” said Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad.
The prosecutor’s case “has polarized Sudanese politics and weakened those who occupy the middle ground of compromise and consensus,” said Rodolphe Adada, a former Congolese foreign minister who heads a joint African Union-U.N. mission in Darfur.
In remarks to the U.N. Security Council in April, Adada challenged Moreno-Ocampo’s characterization of the situation as genocide and said that only 130 to 150 people were dying each month in Darfur, far fewer than the 5,000 that Moreno-Ocampo says die each month from violence and other causes. “In purely numeric terms it is a low-intensity conflict,” Adada said.