Last chance for peace?

What turned a weak state into one willing to commit mass murder was the 1989 coup. It brought to pow

Torture, attacking children, mass rape, genocide . . . these are the charges issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) relating to President Omar Hassan el-Bashir's campaign of "counter-insurgency by genocide" in Darfur Province.

Artificial borders, the presence of oil, a weak government and politicised ethnic and religious differences keep Sudan in a state of permanent emergency, but what turned a weak state into one willing to commit mass murder was the 1989 coup. It brought to power a small cabal, governing through patronage, coercion and atrocity.

The charges brought on 14 July could have been filed long ago - had the ICC then existed - perhaps for the 1992 genocide against the Nuba, or for war crimes in the south. But it is a volatile mix into which to throw an arrest warrant for the president.

No one knows what could happen next. El-Bashir may lash out against peacekeepers and refugees. The intensity of retaliation will depend in part upon the resolve shown by the international community and the disposition of senior Sudanese officials. It is not a wide range of Sudanese ministers that has been indicted, and so el-Bashir is isolated and may lose legitimacy in the eyes of his supporters. Khartoum's elite may calculate that a leader who cannot do business with most of the world is not in their interest.

Some advocates of the ICC process argue that peace and justice are indivisible. In truth, context is all. Sometimes ambiguity over accountability can help, as in South Africa. At other times, indictments can sideline opponents to peace: arrest warrants helped remove hardliners from Bosnia's peace talks. The immediate impact on the Darfur peace process will be minimal: in two years there has been neither peace nor process. One ray of hope is that there may be more serious engagement from Khartoum. The effect on the north-south peace deal is more worrying. Though the agreement has always been fragile, the risk now is that the ICC charges may make el-Bashir even less likely to co-operate.

Finally, the charges may help to galvanise international action. Concerted pressure has achieved results, including the north-south peace. But we suffer from attention deficit disorder. Darfur provides an example, with fractured diplomatic efforts, sanctions against low-ranking individuals only, and a badly leaking arms embargo. Meanwhile, surging oil revenues insulate Khartoum from criticism.

The UN Security Council can suspend the indictments for a year on a renewable basis. Meanwhile, the negotiators have leverage over Khartoum for the first time. Neither should be squandered by hasty suspension under threat of violence from el-Bashir's regime.

The ICC charges represent both threat and opportunity. The threats are real. But so are the opportunities: to inhibit Sudan's allies at the UN Security Council, to gain leverage in negotiations, to refocus international attention on the fragile north-south peace and, most of all, to lift our collective state of denial about the nature of the Sudanese regime.

James Smith is chief executive of the Aegis Trust

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism