UNITED NATIONS, March 5 (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court has ordered the arrest of Sudan's president, but even the court's most ardent supporters concede it will be a long time before he appears in the dock -- if he ever does.
As a legal expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch, Richard Dicker, noted this week, the "Achilles heel" of the ICC is that it has no police force to carry out its warrants.
Instead, the Hague-based ICC depends on governments, mainly those of the suspects it indicts, to enforce its wishes.
Of the four people -- all Congolese warlords -- surrendered to the ICC since it came into being in 2002, three were handed over by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and one by Belgium. Seven other people indicted before this week are still at large.
In a statement on Wednesday accompanying its warrant, the ICC directed its registrar to send Khartoum a request to arrest and surrender President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
It also declared that under a 2005 U.N. Security Council resolution referring the Darfur issue to the ICC, Sudan is obligated to cooperate with the court even though it is not a party to the Rome statute that created the tribunal.
But in reality no one expects Sudan to hand over Bashir, who has been executive ruler of the country for more than 15 years, absent major political changes in the country.
Sudan has said repeatedly it does not recognize the ICC and will ignore its requests. It has already refused to hand over two Sudanese men previously indicted by the court for alleged crimes in Darfur.
The United Nations, which has thousands of peacekeeping troops in Sudan, says they are not mandated to arrest Bashir and will not attempt to do so unless their mandate is changed by the Security Council -- which diplomats says is unlikely.
So the debate among diplomats and analysts has been to what extent the arrest warrant could restrict Bashir's foreign travel, reduce his international influence and possibly, in the long run, weaken him politically at home.
In its statement, the ICC called on the 108 countries that are parties to the Rome statute, U.N. Security Council members that are not parties -- who include the United States, Russia and China -- and "any other state as may be necessary" to cooperate with the arrest warrant.
FREEDOM TO TRAVEL
Bashir would appear to be most at risk of arrest if he arrived in a country that is a party to the Rome statute.
That effectively allows him to travel most of the Arab world, since of the 22 Arab League members, only Jordan, Djibouti and the Comoros have signed and ratified the statute. Sudan says Bashir will attend a League summit in Doha, Qatar, later this month.
Thirty African states are parties, but Ethiopia, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union, is not one. Bashir attended an AU summit in Addis Ababa just last month.
Both the Arab League and the AU have criticized the arrest warrant as a threat to peace prospects in Darfur and both organizations are sending delegations to New York to try to persuade the Security Council to defer it. Veto-holders the United States, Britain and France oppose any deferral.
Western countries say that for a state belonging to the ICC, its obligation to carry out an arrest warrant outweighs any other consideration. But an African country thinking of accepting a visit by Bashir might argue that he is immune to arrest as a head of state.
The ICC warrant may not even stop diplomatic contacts with Bashir. The U.N. envoy of one major Western state said his country would cut "non-essential" contacts with the Sudanese leader but that "essential" contacts might include an ambassador's presentation of credentials in Khartoum.
U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said U.N. officials "will continue to deal with President al-Bashir when they need to do so."
Human rights advocates are looking more to the long term and are citing the cases of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and former Liberian President Charles Taylor, both of whom were indicted by international courts while in office.
"When Milosevic and Charles Taylor were indicted by their respective tribunals they scoffed at them and within a year or two both were apprehended and facing significant judicial processes," said John Prendergast of the anti-genocide ENOUGH Project, a former U.S. National Security Council official.
Dicker of Human Rights Watch said that Milosevic and Taylor "were marginalized and (their) grip on abusive exercise of power was weakened by virtue of these criminal charges." (Additional Reporting by Louis Charbonneau. Editing by Jackie Frank)