ICC Pursues the Arrest of Al Bashir

POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School

On April 9, 2014, the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a decision chastising the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for failing to comply with ICC requests for the arrest and surrender of Omar Al Bashir, the President of Sudan.

In March 2005, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution referring the Situation in Darfur, Sudan, to the ICC for investigation. This was the first time the Security Council referred a situation to the ICC pursuant to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and Article 13(b) of the ICC’s Rome Statute. Following an investigation by the ICC Prosecutor, the ICC issued two arrest warrants for Al Bashir, first in March 2009 and second in July 2010, charging him with responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, committed during the bloody conflict in Darfur.

The Pre-Trial Chamber’s rebuke of the DRC was occasioned by the DRC’s failure to arrest Al Bashir when in late February 2014, he visited the DRC to participate in a summit conference of African leaders to discuss matters of common economic concern in Eastern and Southern Africa. Having advance notice of this visit, the Pre-Trial Chamber issued a request to the DRC to arrest and surrender Al Bashir, pursuant to the previously issued warrants. The DRC is a State Party to the Rome Statute, and Part IX of the Statute requires State Parties to cooperate with the ICC with regard, among other matters, to the arrest and surrender of persons for whom the ICC has issued an arrest warrant.

Among its reasons for not arresting Al Bashir during his February visit, the DRC asserted that it was obligated to respect Al Bashir’s immunity as a head of state, despite the fact that Article 27 of the Rome Statute does not recognize head of state immunity as a bar to ICC prosecution. The DRC, not implausibly, found authority for its position in Rome Statute Article 98(1), which states that the ICC “may not proceed with a request for surrender or assistance which would require the requested State to act inconsistently with its obligations under international law with respect to the State or diplomatic immunity of a person or property of a third State, unless the Court can first obtain the cooperation of that third State for the waiver of the immunity.” Sudan is such a “third State,” not being a State Party.

The Pre-Trial Chamber found the DRC’s claim unavailing because of the Security Council’s referral of the Sudan Situation to the ICC. The Chamber stated in paragraph 31 of its Decision that the Security Council, when referring the Darfur Situation by way of a Resolution pursuant to its Chapter VII authority, “implicitly lifted the immunities of Omar Al Bashir ….” (Both the DRC and Sudan are U.N. members, subject to Security Council authority.)

The Chamber forcefully stated in paragraph 33 of its decision that compliance with a Security Council referral to the ICC was of paramount importance; otherwise such a referral “would never achieve its ultimate goal … to put an end to impunity.”

The Chamber found that the DRC’s failure to arrest Al Bashir constituted a failure of the DRC to comply with its obligations to cooperate with the ICC. Accordingly, the Chamber stated that it was referring its decision to the Security Council and to the Assembly of State Parties.

The Chamber has made a strong statement in support of the ICC’s mandate. But its decision will continue some of the political controversies in which the ICC has been involved, especially given the fact that the DRC and Sudan are member States of the African Union, which has criticized the ICC for allegedly giving excessive and inappropriate attention to affairs in Africa.