Global Policy Forum

Why Should We Shield the Killers?


By Nicholas D. Kristof

New York Times
February 2, 2005

Two weeks ago, President Bush gave an impassioned speech to the world about the need to stand for human freedom. But this week, administration officials are skulking in the corridors of the United Nations, trying desperately to block a prosecution of Sudanese officials for crimes against humanity. It's not that Mr. Bush sympathizes with the slaughter in Darfur. In fact, I take my hat off to Mr. Bush for doing more than most other world leaders to address ethnic cleansing there - even if it's not nearly enough. Mr. Bush has certainly done far more than Bill Clinton did during the Rwandan genocide.

But Mr. Bush's sympathy for Sudanese parents who are having their children tossed into bonfires shrivels next to his hostility to the organization that the U.N. wants to trust with the prosecution: the International Criminal Court. Administration officials so despise the court that they have become, in effect, the best hope of Sudanese officials seeking to avoid accountability for what Mr. Bush himself has called genocide.

Mr. Bush's worry is that if the International Criminal Court is legitimized, American officials could someday be dragged before it. The court's supporters counter that safeguards make that impossible. Reasonable people can differ about the court, but for Mr. Bush to put his ideological opposition to it over the welfare of the 10,000 people still dying every month in Darfur - that's just madness.

The issue arises partly because the Bush administration, to its credit, pushed the U.N. to investigate Darfur and to seek accountability for the killers. The result was a U.N. commission's 176-page report, released this week, that documents a series of crimes against humanity: people in Darfur crucified or thrown into fires, victims having their eyes gouged out or being dragged on the ground by camels, women and girls kept naked in rape camps, huts burned with children inside, and women forced to hand over their baby sons to be killed.

"It is undeniable that mass killings occurred in Darfur and that the killings were perpetrated by the government forces" and by a government-sponsored militia, the report said. The U.N. commission then pulled its punches by concluding that Sudan had not pursued a deliberate policy of genocide - but it added: "The crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been committed in Darfur may be no less serious and heinous than genocide." As a result, the commission "strongly recommends" that the Security Council refer the matter to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, saying that is "the only credible way of bringing alleged perpetrators to justice."

At a practical level, it's also a way to pressure Sudan's leaders to stop a campaign of terror in Darfur that has already claimed at least 218,000 lives, according to a new British study. Prosecution by the International Criminal Court has strong European support, but the Bush administration is aghast and desperately suggests prosecution instead by a court associated with the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda. Alas, that tribunal could take another year and 120,000 more deaths to start a Darfur prosecution.

"The I.C.C. could start tomorrow saving lives," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. "With the Rwanda tribunal route, you're talking about another year of killing." The Bush administration is also struggling to find other Security Council members who would join it in voting against the referral to the International Criminal Court. I hope other countries stand firm, because my conversations with diplomats suggest that if the U.S. stood alone in opposition, the Bush administration would be too ashamed to exercise its veto and might abstain instead.

Kofi Annan called this week for consideration of sanctions against Sudan, and his voice as a leading African carries particular weight with that country's leaders. So, Mr. Bush, what about you? Will you push harder for a coalition for sanctions - forcing China to veto them if it so chooses? Will you impose a no-fly zone to stop Sudan's air force from strafing civilians?

After reading a report on Bill Clinton's passivity during the Rwandan genocide, Mr. Bush scrawled in the margin: "not on my watch." Now the Save Darfur Coalition ( has made green plastic bracelets reading, "Not on My Watch - Save Darfur." Mr. Bush might wear one to his State of the Union address tonight - and find the courage not just to denounce evil, but also to confront it.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on US Opposition to the International Criminal Court
More Information on the ICC in the Security Council
More Information on Sudan


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