The ICC warrant for Omar al-Bashir has put China in an awkward position between the international community and its staunch oil ally.
In July of last year, the ICC’s energetic prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo brought 10 charges against the current President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. They included: three counts of genocide against the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit ethnic groups; five counts of crimes against humanity for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape; and two counts of war crimes for attacks on civilian populations in Darfur and for pillaging towns and villages.
On the 4th of March the ICC issued an arrest warrant for seven of the ten charges against the Sudanese leader, finding insufficient evidence of genocide, but suggesting it would reopen those charges when more evidence came to light. Al-Bashir subsequently railed against the ICC claiming they were attempting to ‘colonise people anew and steal their resources’. Moreno-Ocampo, who prosecuted the military dictators of his native Argentina, demands justice for Darfur, but China’s representatives in Sudan have warned of the indictment’s disastrous implications for Darfur.
China’s special envoy to Sudan Liu Guijin, a vocal critic of the indictment, likens the ICC’s actions to finding a house on fire, and searching for the arsonist before putting out the flames. With al-Bashir’s retaliatory expulsion of 10 foreign aid agencies- including Oxfam, Care, Save the Children UK and Medecins Sans Frontieres- there are increasing fears of further humanitarian suffering in Darfur due to starvation and disease among the 1.5 million Darfuri’s who were dependent on these aid groups.
Beijing chose not to veto the original decision to involve the ICC in the Sudanese issue. Furthermore Beijing has shown little signs of invoking Article 16 of the Rome treaty, which would delay the injunction for a year at a time, indefinitely. Instead China has criticised the process and has called on African temporary members of the United Nations Security Council to propose Article 16 in their stead. During an interview published in November in pro-government Sudanese daily Al-Rayaam, Liu refused to be pressed on whether China would invoke Article 16 and instead distanced China from any role in organising its use.
The Darfur issue has seen the redefinition of China’s non-interference policy. Beijing has been aggrieved by suggestions that it is involved in a ‘scramble’ particularly in the case of Sudan with which it has conducted intimate relations for decades. The countries grew close in 1989 as both found themselves pariahs in the international community, Sudan for its support of Iraq, and China in the aftermath of Tiananmen. The relationship developed apace with China’s growing thirst for Sudan’s oil and the relationship was consummated with the China National Petroleum Corporation’s 40% purchase of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company in 1996.
In 2004 the attention shifted from the north south civil war to the troubles in Darfur. China initially threatened to veto any UN decision that threatened oil sanctions on Sudan. During 2006 China began exerting greater influence on Sudan, attempting to push Khartoum toward the acceptance of a hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping force. When this was rejected in February 2007 China started to take a leadership role in the UN for the first time, even speaking on behalf of the Security Council.
The appointment of Liu Guijin’s in April 2007 signalled a new proactive policy, playing an active interventionist role both unilaterally and from within international organisations. This culminated in Khartoum’s acceptance of the UNAMID peacekeeping force in the summer of 2007.In its attempts at international credibility China’s policy has switched from non intereference to non-intervention. Beijing feels that Khartoum’s agreement is vital to any peace process, but its distaste for being viewed as a unitary actor, means it has barely used its veto in the Security Council.
Beijing’s membership of the western elite was strengthened by the sending of 315 Chinese peacekeepers to Darfur. General Martin Luther Agwai of UNAMID commended them with the UN Medal of Honour in October 2008. In contrast an episode in November involving the kidnapping and killing of 5 Chinese oil workers highlighted to China the value of stability in its investment markets. Outgoing US envoy to Sudan, Richard Williamson, suggests that this might lead China to “recalibrate their own interests in Sudan”. This along with the more pressing matter of the ICC judgement will have been high on the agenda during Liu Guijin’s visit to the capital in January, and will certainly have been discussed during US secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to Beijing.
There is also the question of the proposed referendum on Southern Independence scheduled to take place in 2011. Delegations from China have been actively courting Juba, building an imposing consulate where Britain for example has a one room temporary building. Much of Sudan’s oil lies within the borders of the South and China is keen to appear a friend. President of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, on the night of the 3rd of March said, “We want to work with our partners in peace, that does not mean support [of the ICC decision,] and that does not mean condemnation. We want a solution to the conflict that brought about the ICC decision in the first place.”
Although the indictment will demonstrate a form of accountability to errant leaders worldwide, the process lacks legitimacy. It is being pushed through by American and European allies in the Security Council, where the US has publicly refused to accept the sovereignty of the ICC’s decision over its own citizens. So far al-Bashir’s Khartoum cohort has refused to enter any dialogue over the arrest warrant instead canvassing for support from allies such as Eritrea and Egypt. A statement from high-ranking AU official, Jean Ping, read “We support the fight against impunity. But … the need for justice should not override the need for peace.”
In late December former finance minister Abdel-Wahab Osman said that due to falling oil revenues an external loan would be needed from China. China is responsible for two thirds of Sudan’s oil exports, the value of which are expected to fall from $6.4bn in 2008, to $3.6bn in 2009. Sudan’s resulting reliance on China gives Beijing leverage to influence the direction of Khartoum’s Darfur policy.
What there is to gain from the warrant is unclear. With an African Court likely to be founded in the next year it might be more productive and legitimate to allow the continent to conduct its own trial. With incursion unthinkable and Sudan showing no intention of turning over its President, the injunction has succeeded only in exposing the people of Darfur to even greater vulnerability. The release of opposition Leader Hassan al-Turabi on the 9th of March may have been some concession to international pressures but the risk to the people of Darfur seems to great a price to pay.
Although China is protecting its man in Khartoum it has acted within the auspices of the international community and its opposition to the indictment has been tame. Williamson’s predecessor as US Envoy Andrew Natsios said of China, “I think they will be the crucial actors. I think there’s been a lot of China bashing in the west. And I’m not sure, to be frank with you, that it’s very helpful.” The expulsion of the NGO’s and aid groups from Darfur was unexpected, and although this might one day be added to al-Bashir’s list of crimes, for now the ICC must share the blame.
With al-Bashir publicly haranguing western leaders in a manner reminiscent of Mugabe, China’s role in bringing a peaceful end to the Darfur conflict is likely to grow in importance. Beijing will have to balance its commitments to the international community, Khartoum, Juba and its other international allies making for a difficult path ahead. The ICC played its hand and al-Bashir called their bluff. Beijing and the African Union must now act to prevent another catastrophe in Darfur.