SUDANESE President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, will attend an African Union summit in Johannesburg, his Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman said.
Bashir will visit South Africa for the AU heads of state meeting this weekend, Osman said by phone from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, portending potential diplomatic pains for the host.
The president, who’s ruled Sudan for 25 years, was indicted by the ICC in 2009 for alleged crimes in the western region of Darfur and remains the only sitting head of state with charges over him following the dropping of major crimes charges against Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta last year.
He refuses to recognise or cooperate with the court. The ICC has previously urged countries that are signatories to its Rome Statue to arrest the 71-year-old if he visits.
It will be interesting to see how South Africa reacts if the visit materialises. The country is currently on a charm offensive to mend relations with the rest of the continent following xenophobic attacks earlier in the year that left African nationals dead.
The African Union, Nigeria and Zimbabwe publicly condemned the violence, as South Africa was widely criticised for not responding quickly enough, and for sending mixed messages.
The issue is not officially on the AU agenda, but analysts said the government would actively seek to use the summit to reach out to other members. There are also reports leaders will discuss xenophobia behind closed doors. (Read: AU summit gives South Africa timely chance to repair Africa relations after xenophobia outrage)
“Our future is inherently linked to that of the rest of the African continent,” South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Pretoria, the capital, on June 8.
During the inauguration of president Jacob Zuma for his first term in 2009 South African authorities said that if Bashir attended he would be arrested.
But with the country in damage control mode it would be unwilling to want to stir up another diplomatic storm and further hurt its standing by being seen as pressuring the AU to discourage Bashir from attending.
The situation presents a headache of another sort as South African civil society organisations are already agitating that Zuma abide by the country’s international obligations and by its own constitution, a position that was in recent years backed by its constitutional court.
Three weeks ago the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) in an open letter to the ministers of justice and of international relations over Bashir’s potential visit, demanded the government “act in accordance with the law and prevent the Republic of South Africa from becoming a temporary safe haven for those who have been indicted by the ICC.”
The main opposition party the Democratic Alliance also Friday demanded that the Sudanese leader be arrested should he set foot in South Africa.
While South Africa as a member of the ICC is obligated to apprehend him, the meeting has been called by the African Union which has invited the African leaders.
The AU following a 2012 summit in Libya has an active policy urging its members to ignore the warrant issued by the ICC, arguing that only African leaders are targeted.
In 2012 Bashir’s plan to attend a similar summit in Malawi was torpedoed by new president Joyce Banda, forcing the meeting to be shifted back to the 54-member bloc’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.
BashIr attended the rescheduled meeting in the Ethiopian capital, but Banda opted out, sending her deputy instead.
Banda said she feared the “economic implications” of Bashir landing in her country at a time when she was trying to mend strained relations with donors.
Bashar had visited Malawi in 2011, when Banda’s predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika refused to apprehend him despite pressure from civil society.
For Pretoria is possibly an additional headache it could have without.
—Additional reporting with Bloomberg