CAIRO (Reuters) - When the International Criminal Court prosecutor sought an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, the move set off alarm bells in Arab capitals that fear it may showcase a new form of Western meddling in Arab affairs.
Arab leaders, many of whom run governments accused of rampant human rights abuses, worry the court could next turn its focus to other Arab states if it succeeds in prosecuting Omar Hassan al-Bashir for Darfur war crimes.
Anticipating the ICC move, Sudan swiftly called for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers, whose ranks include strong North African friends of Khartoum and who swung to action with a plan that appeared aimed to avoid prosecution of Bashir.
“A large part of the developing world is very, very suspicious of the ICC,” Sudan expert John Ashworth said. “If you look at the Arab League itself, I guess there would be members of the Arab League who would fear being indicted as well.”
Many Arabs believe that Muslim states are being targeted disproportionately by the West for any perceived missteps, citing the U.S.-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan as well as pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Arabs say the international community has failed for half a century to secure statehood for Palestinians or speak up about Israeli human rights violations.
That makes them all the more resentful of Western calls for action on Darfur, where the ICC prosecutor has accused Bashir of orchestrating genocide that has killed 35,000 people outright, at least another 100,000 through slow death, and forced 2.5 million from their homes.
Arabs’ cultural and political affinity with Sudan’s largely Arab north also means some may feel more natural empathy with the Bashir government than with mostly non-Arab Darfur rebels.
“All the Arabs now feel, and I think they have a right, that they are already targeted... For those average people, Omar al-Bashir represents Arab legitimacy, Arab dignity even,” Cairo-based political analyst Diaa Rashwan said.
Both the Arab League and the African Union want the U.N. Security Council to put on hold the ICC move to indict Bashir, and the Arab League said on Tuesday that it had secured a pledge from Sudan to try those it suspects of crimes in Darfur at home.
The deal will allow the United Nations, African Union and Arab League to follow the proceedings, although it would be up to Sudan to decide who to try. The League did not say if two Sudanese indicted by the ICC last year would face charges.
The agreement, after a visit by Arab League chief Amr Moussa to Khartoum, showed the League may be well-placed to pressure Sudan. But the move may still not satisfy Western critics.
“From the Sudan government’s point of view, what they clearly want to do is to get the Arab League to put pressure on the African Union to try and back up the president,” said Patrick Smith, editor of UK-based Africa Confidential.
“Part of its strategy is to have at any one time four or five different initiatives to deal with what’s going on in Darfur. So in that way the core issues are obfuscated,” he said.
Some Arab states have practical concerns as well. Cairo, for example, fears a handful of potentially unpredictable new states emerging to its south that could threaten stability or covet Egypt’s share of Nile waters, analysts say. Those fears are among factors that lead it to lend more support to Khartoum than to separatist rebels.
But there is by no means a true Arab consensus for full backing of Khartoum, and the League’s criticism of the ICC has so far been relatively mild.
Analysts say some states may want to avoid strong criticism of the ICC or unconditional backing for Khartoum because it could embarrass them before the international community.
Yet if diplomatic efforts by Arab and African states are unable to delay an arrest warrant for Bashir, analysts said they doubt very much that the Sudanese leader would face any dangers in the countries of his Arab friends.
“I don’t think at all that President Bashir will have any kind of problems in any Arab country,” Rashwan said. “I think they will decide to receive President Bashir.”
Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Samia Nakhoul