Next week Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir will visit Turkey to attend a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for his alleged responsibility in war crimes in Darfur in March 2009, the President of Sudan cannot travel to countries that ratified the Rome Statute of 1998, the founding document of the ICC. Turkey is one of the countries that has not ratified the 1998 treaty and thereby does not recognize the jurisdiction of the international court on its territory. Therefore, Turkey is one of the countries the Sudanese President could freely travel to without the fear of arrest.
It is true that Turkey is not under an international obligation to arrest Mr. al-Bashir. However, the Turkish Penal Code of 2004 recognizes the principle of universal jurisdiction regarding genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. That is to say, according to Articles 13, 76, 77 and 78 of the Code, Turkish courts can try any person who committed these crimes regardless of where or when they occurred. If the crimes were committed outside of Turkey, the accused can be tried under Turkish law upon the request of the Minister of Justice, which is a purely political office in Turkey. Especially when the alleged perpetrator is present on Turkish soil, the authorities must immediately place the person under arrest and try him under national law. Otherwise, authorities themselves will be committing a grave breach of domestic law. Thus, President al-Bashir’s visit to Istanbul next week will present the world with a unique opportunity to test Turkey’s commitment to uphold not only principles of international criminal law, but also its own domestic legislation.
However, inaction by Turkish authorities shall not be surprising. In fact, it is expected that Mr. al-Bashir will safely travel to Istanbul and even receive a royal welcome from the President and the Prime Minister of Turkey, as he did during his last two visits to Turkey in January and August 2008. So, what would inaction by Turkish authorities mean? First and foremost, it will confirm Turkey’s relaxed and insincere position on issues related to grave human rights violations, including genocide. In fact, on Darfur Turkey officially embraces a position more or less similar to the Arab League’s stance, which views the ICC’s arrest warrant as a “western” conspiracy against the Arab and Muslim world. Even though international sources estimate the number of victims to be around 200,000 people who died during the conflict in Darfur, the Khartoum regime and the Arab League put the number around 10,000 people.
Again it will not be surprising to see Turkey’s Islamist-leaning leaders align with their Muslim brethren against this so-called western conspiracy. Yet as readers will remember, the Prime Minister, Mr. Erdogan, repeatedly accused Israel of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during its incursion into Gaza about a year ago. In this regard, if the Turkish premier was sincerely concerned about civilian casualties in Gaza, then we should expect to see the same sensitivity on the part of the Turkish government towards the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Otherwise, one could simply say that the spectacle by Erdogan at Davos was nothing but an Islamist hypocrisy, which only valued the lives of Arab Muslims but turned a blind eye to the loss of hundreds of thousands of non-Arab or non-Muslim lives. Therefore, what the international community should expect from Mr. Erdogan is that he either disinvite the Sudanese President, or simply order his Minister of Justice to initiate a legal process that will lead to the arrest and conviction of Mr. al-Bashir when he arrives in Istanbul next week. Mr. Erdogan’s government radically reformed Turkish Penal Law several years ago and revolutionarily included a provision regarding genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Now it is time to turn this paper tiger into a real one by ordering the Republican prosecutors bringing charges against Mr. al-Bashir. This may not make him the hero of the Arab and Muslim masses, as his “one-minute” show at Davos did, but surely it will provide him with the much needed international support and sympathy to carry on some of the long-overdue democratic reforms at home and beyond.