WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hours after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir kicked humanitarian aid groups out of his country. Nevertheless, Jewish activists who backed the indictment are standing behind their decision.
The world community cannot allow Bashir’s crimes and threats to deter the appropriate legal entities from taking action, said the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein.
Bashir’s reaction reaffirms "the legitimacy of the indictment” by the International Criminal Court, said Saperstein, who noted that Bashir has been obstructing the provision of humanitarian aid for years, and that the indictment and arrest warrant should turn up the pressure on the Sudanese leader.
The warrant charges Bashir with five counts of crimes against humanity — murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape — in the Darfur region of Sudan. It also includes two counts of war crimes — intentionally directing an attacks against a civilian population and pillaging.
After a nearly six-year campaign of systematic rape, expulsion and murder against the citizens of Darfur by the government-backed Janjaweed militia, hundreds of thousands have died and more than 2.5 million have fled their homes and live in refugee camps in the region or in the neighboring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic.
Following the arrest warrant, the Sudanese government revoked the licenses of 13 international humanitarian organizations and evicted them from Sudan on March 4. The government also closed down three domestic relief agencies.
According to the Save Darfur Coalition, the expelled organizations account for at least half of the humanitarian operations in Darfur, and without them, some 1.1 million people will be without food aid, 1.5 million will not have medical care and more than a million will be left without safe drinking water.
“I’m sad" about the situation, but "if criminal law is going to mean anything, we have to call it what it is,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which earlier this month passed a resolution supporting the possible use of military force in Darfur.
Gutow said supporters of the indictment anticipated the consequences, but the hope is that the ICC action will have an impact “not today but tomorrow.” He said the arrest warrant increased the likelihood that others in the Sudanese leadership, upset by the international opprobrium, would push out Bashir and set up a more conciliatory government.
Another Jewish group active on the Darfur issue, the American Jewish World Service, refused to connect the two recent events. AJWS spokesman Joshua Berkman said his organization “does not believe there is any legitimate link” between the arrest warrant and the ejection of aid groups.
“The ICC is an independent court and has nothing to do with humanitarian relief work,” he said.
Berkman said AJWS believes the international community is correct in rejecting the idea that humanitarian aid for 4 million people could be used as a “bargaining chip” in any way, and added that it was time for the United States to take the lead in pushing to resolve the conflict.
Saperstein agreed, saying that his group was pushing for the White House to name a special envoy to work on the issue.
After a meeting with President Obama last month, actor George Clooney said he was told there would be an envoy appointed, but the White House has not announced it.
In a letter last week signed by AJWS, the Religious Action Center and the JCPA, more than 50 members of the Save Darfur Coalition urged Obama to condemn publicly Bashir’s actions and “insist that he restore access to life-saving humanitarian aid.”
While the effects of the expulsion of aid groups on Darfurians is not yet known, Jewish leaders said that Bashir’s actions immediately caught the attention of the wider American Jewish community, which has been at the forefront of efforts to bring the world’s focus to the Darfur genocide.
The Reform movement sent out an action alert last week to its congregations urging members to call their members of Congress about Darfur, and "judging from the response, people are re-engaged on this issue," Saperstein said.
He said the indictment and expulsion of aid groups "has galvanized people again."