JOHANNESBURG: An African Union summit meeting meant to discuss development issues was being overshadowed by the possible participation ofSudan’s president, who risks arrest on international criminal charges if he enters host nation South Africa.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is travelling to the talks along with dozens of other leaders in South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg, risking arrest due to standing International Criminal Court warrants for genocide and crimes against humanity, according to a report by the country’s state media published on Saturday.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said South Africa was under a legal obligation to arrest al-Bashir and surrender him to the court. Her office has been in touch with South African authorities on the Sudanese president’s reported visit, she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
“We’ve been in contact and we are basically reminding them of their obligation under the Rome Statute to have him arrested if he gets to South Africa,” Bensouda said, referring to the court’s founding treaty.
If al-Bashir is not arrested, the matter will be reported to the court’s assembly of states and the United Nations Security Council, which first referred the case of Sudan’s Darfur region to the International Criminal Court in 2005, she said.
The charges against al-Bashir, who took power in a 1989 coup, stem from reported atrocities in the conflict in Darfur, in which 300,000 people were killed and 2 million displaced in the government’s campaign, according to United Nations figures.
Rights groups echoed the prosecutors call for al-Bashir’s arrest.
“Allowing President al-Bashir into South Africa without arresting him would be a major stain on South Africa’s reputation on promoting justice for grave crimes,” said Elise Keppler, acting international justice director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
A rights group called the Southern Africa Litigation Center said it would seek to have al-Bashir arrested if he entered the country. South Africa is among the 123 countries that recognize the court’s jurisdiction, and police would be obliged to arrest the Sudanese president.
“We are relying on them to abide by their obligations under international and South African law,” said Catherine James, a lawyer with the group.
Al-Bashir was slated to speak at a session on the African Peer Review Mechanism, a program in which African states monitor each other’s good governance standards. Instead, an official took Sudan’s seat at the Saturday afternoon session with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, South African President Jacob Zuma, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other leaders.
South Africa’s ministry of international relations declined to comment.
The African Union has asked the International Criminal Court to stop proceedings against sitting presidents, said African Union Commission spokesman Jacob Enoh-Eben. The African Union will not compel any member states to arrest a leader on behalf of the court, he added.
“It’s like arresting yourself,” said Enoh-Eben.