The African Union (AU) on Friday refused to act on an international war crimes warrant for the Sudanese president, at a summit that also yielded a deal on the powers of a new regional authority.
The refusal to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir granted a continent-wide reprieve to a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
While the measure was backed by Libya and other nations that sympathize with Sudan, the text also voiced Africa’s frustration at the UN Security Council’s failure to consider a request to suspend the warrant for one year, delegates said.
“They are showing to the world community that if you don’t want to listen to the continent, if you don’t want to take into account our proposals … if you don’t want to listen to the continent, as usual, we also are going to act unilaterally,” the top AU official Jean Ping said.
Thirty African nations are party to the treaty that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), but even advocates of the ICC said they sensed a bias by the tribunal’s prosecutor against Africa.
The UN says up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels in Darfur rose up against the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum in February 2003.
The Sudanese government says 10,000 have been killed.
Rights activists said the AU decision ignored the plight of the victims of the violence.
“This resolution, the result of unprecedented bullying by Libya, puts the AU on the side of a dictator accused of mass murder rather than on the side of his victims,” said Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.
“But it cannot erase the legal obligations undertaken by the 30 African countries which have ratified the ICC treaty,” he said.
The summit proved contentious from the start as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the current AU chief hosting the summit in his hometown, extended a surprise invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the summit’s opening Wednesday.
Tehran canceled the visit at the last minute without explanation, after it became clear not all the delegates knew about or welcomed his visit.
The 24 leaders at the summit then held marathon talks on Thursday night to reach a pre-dawn deal on the powers of a new AU Authority that will be tasked with coordinating defense, foreign relations and trade policies.
Despite relentless pressure from Qaddafi to grant the Authority broad influence over policy, the summit left the new body toothless to act without an explicit mandate from the member states.
Qaddafi had hoped the AU’s new executive authority would mark a major step toward his dreamed “United States of Africa,” but the continent’s biggest economy South Africa, as well as top oil producers Nigeria and Angola, won out with their insistence on a more gradual approach to integration.
“There are some small steps towards consultations and common African policy positions, but those who want to go slowly came out ahead,” said one minister who participated in the talks.
The 53 member states still must ratify the changes, meaning the AU still has a long wait to see the existing AU Commission transformed into the Authority.
The compromise settled the most contentious debate at the summit, which largely overshadowed talks on a raft of conflicts roiling the continent, most dramatically in Somalia, where Islamist insurgents launched an offensive against the internationally backed government nearly two months ago.