June 10, 2021: Fatou Bensouda has given her last briefing as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, lamenting that the tribunal has not yet brought justice to victims of atrocities in Sudan’s western Darfur region. But, she said, a new era in Sudan and the transfer of the first Darfur suspect to the court should give them hope.
Bensouda said Darfur victims she spoke to last week had one message: Sudan’s transitional government should hand over three suspects sought by the court who are in its custody – former President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of genocide; former defence minister Abdel Raheem Hussein, and former interior minister and governor Ahmad Harun.
Bensouda, whose mandate ends June 15, said she has focused on Darfur since crimes being committed there were referred to the court by the Security Council in 2005, when she was deputy prosecutor. But her recent visit to Sudan and Darfur was a first – a memorable trip that she said was “a strong reminder that we should focus on achieving justice for the victims and finding lasting peace for the people of Darfur.”
Bensouda cautioned, however, that “the road ahead remains long and fraught with dangers,” saying that Sudan’s transition following al-Bashir’s overthrow in April 2019 after mass protests demanding civilian rule “is still in its infancy”.
Still, she said, after years of hostility and no cooperation, “the ICC and the government of Sudan have turned a new page in their relationship” and have been engaging in “constructive dialogue” and a “good spirit of cooperation.”
The vast Darfur region was gripped by bloodshed in 2003 when rebels from the territory’s ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an armed rebellion accusing the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of discrimination and neglect.
The government, under al-Bashir, responded with a scorched-earth assault of aerial bombings and unleashed local nomadic Arab militias known as the Popular Defence Forces on the population, resulting in countless reports of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
Bensouda said she urged the handover of al-Bashir and the others at meetings with Sudanese government officials, including the head of the Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
“Sudan is under a legal obligation to surrender the suspects” under the Security Council resolution that referred Darfur to the court, she said.
Harun, who faces 20 counts of crimes against humanity and 22 counts of war crimes, remains at large. His presence at the Hague-based court is required for the trial to begin.
Bensouda said Harun’s transfer is urgent so he can be tried with Sudanese militia leader Ali Kushayb, who voluntarily surrendered a year ago to the court in The Hague, Netherlands. She appealed to the Security Council “to prevail upon Sudan to immediately honour Mr Harun’s wish and facilitate his transfer to the ICC without delay.”
Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said: “It’s well past time for Khartoum to honour its responsibility to the victims of Darfur. Surrendering these three suspects would signal an indelible commitment to the rule of law.”