The astonishing aspect to the diplomatic debacle involving Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is not that this genocidal maniac was allowed to leave South Africa. It was that he was allowed to come here in the first place.

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur conflict. Already more than 300 000 people have been killed, with another 2.5 million displaced. Ironically, given the number of African apologists for al-Bashir, the violence is brutally racist in nature, with ethnic Arabs targeting black people.

A measure of how far the African National Congress government has slid down the pole of political expediency is the hosting and toasting al-Bashir and then, when a full bench of the high court — two black judges and one white — ruled that he be arrested, shamelessly conniving to let him slip away. It is clear that long gone are those heady days when the ANC boasted that moral precepts and international law would be the foundation of the new SA’s foreign policy.

It is sure difficult to discern the morality behind refusing the pacifist Dalai Lama a visa to attend a Cape Town gathering of Nobel Peace laureates, while allowing a murderous despot facing an arrest warrant to attend an Africa Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg.

Morality in international relations, of course, is in an eternal tussle with realpolitik. But when needs must and states choose the latter over the former, they at least usually try to finesse their dilemma as best they can.

There is admittedly a comprehensible realpolitik, albeit tawdry, to SA denying entry to the Dalai Lama. He is, after all, a thorn in the side of our Chinese allies and like fawning puppy dogs we are eager to endear ourselves to our new colonial masters.

Unfortunately there as yet has been little or no reward for our craven sycophancy. Perhaps the SA government should, instead of wagging its tale so enthusiastically, reflect upon the fact that the Chinese consider the tender flesh of clubbed puppies a culinary delicacy.

When it comes to al-Bashir, the costs are higher. President Jacob Zuma¹s administration has not only acted amorally in violating an international statute ratified by our own Parliament, but has triggered a constitutional crisis by defying a court ruling that al-Bashir should be stopped from leaving and arrested.

Western opprobrium over SA ignoring international treaties and subverting the rule of law probably will not overly perturb Zuma. He is more likely to feel stung by the sniggers from everyone else over his pratfall amateurishness in handling the matter.

The realpolitik behind the al-Bashir missteps is SA’s desire not to offend fellow AU nations, which have become increasingly unhappy about an ICC trial roster featuring mostly African leaders. So when the AU invited al-Bashir — as it believes as a supranational it is entitled to do — SA was quick to give confidential assurances that the ICC warrant would be quietly ignored.

Unfortunately it was Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, AU chair and bloodstained dictator in his own right, to whom these promises were made. It¹s a measure of Mugabe¹s antipathy towards Zuma — who has not been as supportive as Zanu-PF feels entitled — that Mugs gleefully broke diplomatic protocol to make public these rash promises.

Any vaguely competent government would have handled things differently. It firstly would have faced squarely the legal realities, both in terms of international law and the SA Constitution.

There is little doubt that the Rome Statute, which defines ICC powers, has preference over the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act of 2001 that the government claims gave al-Bashir immunity to attend the summit. In any case, it doesn¹t take political genius to predict that civil society activist groups would grasp the opportunity to seek his arrest, which even if it failed in law would embarrass the AU and make al-Bashir think twice about future forays abroad.

If SA truly believes that the ICC is a European court to police Africa, as many aver, it could long ago have withdrawn from it. Having failed to do so, it should have warned the AU and Sudan that al-Bashir¹s attendance was likely to degenerate into a spectacle that would overshadow the summit.

All of this would have demanded a degree of competence that is simply absent from the Zuma government. In similar vein, one would have expected any moderately savvy Zuma adviser to have told the president that not only was it unwise to personally welcome al-Bashir, but to do so with such obvious affection and regard was a slap in the face for millions of black Sudanese.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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