Last week, the International Criminal Court, a prosecutorial arm of the United Nations, issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir. The first ever such warrant for a sitting head of state (Bashir bests génocidaires Slobodan Milosevic and former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who were nabbed after leaving power) accuses the president of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in a systematic and sustained fashion. Upon news of the warrant, the wicked Bashir swept through Darfur on an "official tour," and expelled aid workers and diplomats from his country (recalling Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from East Africa in 1972, but that’s another tale).

Jerry Fowler, a lawyer who leads the Save Darfur Coalition, says that many Darfuris, victims of Bashir’s six-year pogrom, are jubilant at the news, despite the possibility that it could inflame his temper and upset the tenuous “peace” that reigns in parts of Southern Sudan. “Yes, they haven’t known peace,” he says. But if Bashir walks, Darfuris “would end up with no peace and no justice.”

But what on earth is just? We know there are still upwards of 2 million displaced Darfuris living in refugee camps, unable to return to homes that are, in the cases of some now-grown children, nothing but a memory. And that the violence, while diminished from the horrors of four years ago, still haunts vast swaths of the country.

So again, what is just? Elizabeth Rubin, an international reporter who profiled head ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo for the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE in 2006, wrote then:

The Hague has become a symbol of both the promise of international law and its stunning shortcomings. We have reached a point in world affairs at which we learn about genocide even as it unfolds, and yet it is practically a given that the international community will not use military intervention to stop it.

That sentiment is clearly the most stunning fact about this genocide, that good people who—compared to the opacity of the World War Two-era genocide in Europe—know with near surgical precision just what is happening in Darfur, and have done nothing. Richard Just’s magnificent review of books on Darfur for THE NEW REPUBLIC explores this paradox of knowledge and inaction.

Rubin’s profile is also worth reading for the intricate portrait it provides of a body hamstrung by its overbroad mandate and less than intimidating track record. Indeed, Fowler said, when discussing the legal implications of the Bashir warrant, that this will be “a test of legitimacy” for the ICC, which oversees 108 countries, including 30 in Africa—some of whom have similar human rights problems (despot Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is one leader for whom this type of “test” could prove instructive).

Advertisement

In 2006, Moreno-Ocampo, whose feud with Bashir is anything if not complicated, defended his organization—badly undermined by Bush-era policies—trying to put Darfur in historical perspective:

What happened to the native populations in the U.S. and Latin America could not happen today with the I.C.C. Absolutely. Absolutely. We are evolving. Humanity is not just sitting. There is a new concept. The history of human beings is war and violence; now we're saying this institution is here to prevent crimes against humanity.

Advertisement

Hmm. Rosy as that vision might be, it was imprecise of him to invoke "prevention"—for the crime that we did not prevent is happening even now in Darfur; the African Union and Arab League actually called for a suspension of the investigation into Bashir’s wrongdoing; and in fact, a lack of clear US priorities—even from an African American president, a hawkish vice president and UN ambassador—seems to be hobbling the mission. I’d wager that the current incarnation of the ICC would hardly have slowed the trail of tears.

Lastly, recall that the first steps toward this warrant were taken in 2005, just as Barack Obama was settling into his life as a US Senator. Even if he had good options now that he is president, the slow-going on the warrant phase does not bode well for the future of "justice" in Darfur.

Advertisement

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.