A second Omar al-Bashir moment for SA

Andrew Donaldson writes on Vladimir Putin's visit to SA now that the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader


ONE Sunday afternoon, in January 2008, strolling about the neighbourhood, I came across an elderly woman in ragged purple robes. She was a Maselit from Sudan’s Darfur region and, seeing as I lived in Melville at the time, this was encounter out of the ordinary, to say the least.

The woman was in great distress, wailing and sobbing as she clawed at her face. A small crowd gathered. None of us could understand a word she was saying. Eventually, after a local DA councillor, Sharon Sabbagh, found an Arabic translator, her story emerged.

Her name was Hamat Kadamala Hassan. Some months previously, in 2007, the Janjaweed raided her village. She had been in the fields at the time with her granddaughter and the two were able to hide as the militia razed the village and murdered its inhabitants.

There was only one other survivor: Hassan’s 13-year-old grandson, Rachid Dahiye. He had been caught by the raiders and was thrown into a burning hut. Extraordinarily, the boy forced himself to remain inside this blazing inferno until the Janjaweed left and it was safe to emerge.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Rachid’s wounds were terrible. Badly disfigured, he and his grandmother and sister walked for days to a refugee camp across the border in Chad. Doctors there were not in a position to offer much help and Rachid’s condition deteriorated over the course of several weeks. An international appeal was launched. A Johannesburg charity that helps children who are burn victims then offered to pay for Rachid’s flight to South Africa and cover the costs of skin graft operations at a local hospital.

Rachid and his grandmother arrived on December 26, 2007. A week later, Hassan was informed that she had to return to Chad. She flatly refused, insisting that she remain with her grandson while he recovered in South Africa. On January 10, 2008, as Rachid underwent his first operation, the charity attempted to force Hassan onto a flight to Chad. Again she refused. So she was abandoned on the streets of Johannesburg, alone, terrified and unable to communicate with anyone.

The matter eventually appeared before the Pretoria High Court, which appointed advocate Jacob van Garderen, then national director of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Project at Lawyers for Human Rights, as Rachid’s curator. Hassan was allowed to remain in SA. In May 2008, Rachid and Hassan left for Tunisia, where the boy continued to receive treatment for his burns.

I revisited Rachid’s story in June 2015 following the fiasco surrounding Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s attendance at an African Union summit at the Sandton Convention Centre. Bashir was wanted in The Hague at the time. In July 2008, International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo accused the Sudanese dictator of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. In July 2010, the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest on three separate charges of genocide.

Readers will recall that, as one of 123 ICC signatories, South Africa was obliged by international law to detain Bashir and hand him over to the ICC for trial. Instead, the ANC government of Jacob Zuma shamefully allowed him to slip out the country. Indeed, they may even have assisted in loading Bashir’s baggage onto the chartered flight that left Waterkloof air force base for Khartoum, where the ratbag was hailed as returning hero by his supporters.

Such contempt for the law and, in particular, the ICC’s Rome Statute was staggering. Nowhere was this more brazen than in the Pretoria High Court, when a lawyer representing the state was questioned about Bashir’s sudden “disappearance” from the AU summit: he claimed the tyrant’s whereabouts were unknown and that he may have slipped out of the conference to go shopping. It was a submission that drew a chorus of knowing sniggers from the public gallery. 

So much then for the 400 000 people in Darfur who had been murdered by Bashir’s Janjaweed and the more than two million who, like Rachid and his sister and grandmother, had been displaced in a conflict that could be described as the ethnic cleansing of Africans by Arabs in a part of the world that had attracted the interest of the Chinese.

Rachid came to mind once more after the ICC issued arrest warrants at the weekend for Vladimir Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, in relation to the forced deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia, where many have been adopted by Russians. It is likely that these warrants will be expanded to include other crimes as the ICC’s investigations into atrocities in Ukraine continue.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that Putin will ever be brought to trial. Russia does not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction, having withdrawn as a signatory to the Rome statute in 2016, and so will almost certainly not be extraditing its citizens.

This however doesn’t imply that the warrants are toothless gestures. Far from it. They are clear signals to the Kremlin elite that they, too, may be vulnerable to prosecution and that their ability to travel internationally could be severely curtailed. 

The warrants also place Russia’s “neutral” allies — that includes us! — in a position of some discomfort. Putin, for example, is expected in South Africa in August for a BRICS summit and Pretoria could find itself in a situation as awkward and as disgraceful as the Bashir fiasco. However, and according to Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, Pretoria has its eye on the ball in this regard. Reuters quoted him as saying:

“We are, as the government, cognisant of our legal obligation. However, between now and the summit we will remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders …We note the report on the warrant of arrest that the ICC has issued. It remains South Africa's commitment and very strong desire that the conflict in Ukraine is resolved peacefully through negotiations.”

The expected result, then: Legal Obligation 0, Vladimir 1.

Back in 2015, the Zuma administration pitifully argued that it had “no duty under international law and the Rome statute to arrest a serving head of state of a [non-ICC party] such as Omar al-Bashir”. Several other countries that Bashir visited also declined to arrest him, and for a while there was some chatter among the less savoury regimes that genocidal war criminals were immune from prosecution so long as they remained serving heads of state.

Ha-hah. But then, as it sometimes does happen, a time comes when the war criminals are no longer serving heads of states.

So it was with Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. He was arrested in London in 1998 on an international warrant issued in Spain, which wanted to try him for crimes against humanity. Pinochet claimed immunity as a former head of state, which the British courts rejected. He was lucky, though. Following a strong Tory intervention, the British government allowed the former military dictator to return to Santiago on health grounds. 

Nevertheless, this was a watershed moment in international law: Pinochet had been arrested in a foreign country for crimes against humanity committed in his own country — and without a warrant or an extradition request from his own country. Chalk one up for universal jurisdiction: there are acts so horrific that they constitute crimes against humanity and can therefore be prosecuted anywhere in the world.

Bashir’s luck also ran out. He was ousted in a coup in April 2019. In February 2020, Sudan’s ruling military council agreed to hand Bashir over to the ICC once he had finished serving a two-year prison sentence for corruption.

And, supposing Putin suffers the same fate, would a future Russian leader follow suit and decide that it was more politic to send his predecessor to The Hague rather than offer him protection? The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont suggests that the indictment on a series of war crimes by former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević as a precedent:

“In 2001, amid a struggle between key opposing figures in Serbia after Milošević’s fall from power, the prime minister, Zoran Djindjić, ignored a court ruling banning the extradition and ordered the transfer of Milošević to The Hague, saying: ‘Any other solution except cooperation [with The Hague] would lead the country to disaster.’ Milošević’s arrest — preceding his transfer — followed pressure on the Yugoslav government to detain the former president or risk losing substantial US economic aid and loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.”

And therein lay a rub of sorts. Such “Western” pressure, particularly when it is has been brought to bear on African leaders, has resulted in denunciations of the ICC’s “selective justice”; that the court is only interested in targeting leaders of African states.  

It is noteworthy that such accusations are loudest among those African leaders who can be described as prominent persons of interest where the ICC and its investigations are concerned. The warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest should, however, serve as a reminder that they are not the only rubbish in town.

In good hands

The latest World Happiness Report has been released and, sad to say, South Africa is down there, languishing in 101st place out of the 146 countries surveyed. The usual suspects top the list: Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Results were determined by analysing a country’s gross domestic product per capita, its social support programmes, healthy life expectancy, personal freedoms, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels. According to the report, the world’s most unhappy country is Afghanistan. 

Second from the bottom, meanwhile, is Zimbabwe, where, it may be said, widespread misery is exacerbated by the Mnangagwa regime’s decision to ban the sale of sex toys. These items have been described as “indecent, obscene or objectionable” and, as such, “might tend to deprave the morals of the inhabitants, or any class of the inhabitants of Zimbabwe”.

Hope springs eternal, though, for Sitabile Dewa, the leader of a Zimbabwean NGO for women’s rights, is challenging the ban in court. Purely for health reasons, you understand. Hers is a moving story. As News24 quoted Dewa:

“During the subsistence of my marriage, I would turn to my then husband for sexual gratification. I no longer have this benefit by virtue of having separated from him and in any event, he has entered another marital set-up.

“I am nevertheless young, and still have active sexual desires that require to be satisfied. However, due to my moral and ethical convictions I have made a choice not to engage in extra-marital sexual relations until such a time I find someone to settle down with and establish a family.

“In the meantime, I believe I should not be deprived of self­-exploration and indulgence in self-sexual gratification. To that end, I want to acquire and use sex toys that are designed to give me sexual gratification. In addition, part of my motivation is to avert the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases by engaging in casual sex, which in [any] case, is against my moral convictions. The option that I have within the comfort and privacy of my home, is to make use of devices that were invented for personal sexual gratification.”

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), the regulars wish Dewa all the best in her quest for a new husband. Until then, though, she presumably must look after herself.