Darfur Decision

Obama Pushed to Deny Visa or Arrest Sudan’s Genocidal President at UN

Sudan’s notorious leader plans to visit the U.N. Will the U.S. deny his visa—or arrest him? By Josh Rogin.

A coalition of Sudan advocacy groups and leading activists, including actors George Clooney, Don Cheadle, and Mia Farrow, are urging President Obama to do everything he can to prevent Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, an indicted war criminal, from visiting the U.S. next week.

“Our immigration laws prohibit admitting perpetrators of genocide and extrajudicial killings into our country and it is unprecedented for someone wanted by the International Criminal Court for the crime of genocide to travel to the United States,” wrote Clooney, Cheadle, Farrow and a host of Sudan groups to President Obama Thursday. “While we recognize that the U.S. government is obliged to facilitate President Bashir’s visit under the U.N. Headquarters Agreement, we urge you to do everything in your power to prevent the trip.”

The letter was joined by leaders of the Enough Project, United to End Genocide, Humanity United, Sudan Democracy First Group, Unite for Darfur, Voices for Sudan, American Jewish World Service, iActivism, International Justice Project, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Jewish World Watch, Help Nuba, Act for Sudan, Sudan Unlimited, Jews Against Genocide, New York Coalition for Sudan, Humanity Is Us, and STAND.

In 2008, the lead prosecutor at the ICC in the Hague accused Bashir of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In 2009, the ICC indicted him for war crimes and crimes against humanity and, in 2010, added charges of genocide. Sudan is not a party to the ICC; neither is the U.S., but it is required to allow foreign leaders to come to New York for the United Nations General Assembly and provide them support.

The State Department still hasn’t decided whether to issue a visa for Bashir. “There are a variety of considerations in play with respect to President Bashir’s visa request, including the outstanding warrant for his arrest,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday. “We’re not going to sort through these considerations publicly.”

The ICC has said it wants the U.S. to give Bashir a visa and then arrest him when he lands in New York, but the State Department won’t say if that’s an option. It also won’t comment on whether Bashir enjoys diplomatic immunity while on U.S. soil.

“There are a lot of legal questions here,” said Harf. “This is what I know: That generally speaking, because the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, the obligations that apply to member-states do not necessarily apply to us.”

The celebrities and Sudan groups wrote that even if the U.S. can’t formally deny Bashir a visa, there are other ways the State Department can make it so uncomfortable and undesirable for him to visit America that he chooses to forgo the trip on his own.

“The administration should consider announcing that if President Bashir lands in New York, the U.S. Department of Justice will explore filing a criminal case against him under 18 USC 1091. This law, which codifies the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007, allows for anyone present in the United States to be prosecuted for genocide, even if their crimes were committed abroad,” the groups wrote. “By publicly raising the threat of such a prosecution and the specter that President Bashir’s privileges and immunities may not extend to genocidal acts, your administration would make an important statement about the U.S. government’s commitment to atrocity prevention and accountability.”

The State Department could also publicly announce it will only provide the minimum level of security for Bashir, which might persuade him not to come, the groups wrote. They could also limit the number of visas for Bashir’s security team and promise to restrict their movements while they are in the country. The U.S. could also encourage other nations to refuse to let Bashir fly over their airspace or refuel in their territory on his way to New York, making his journey that much less appealing.

If Bashir does make it to New York, the U.S. mission at the U.N., led by Ambassador Samantha Power, could work to prevent him from getting high-level meetings with other officials and also organize a walkout in the General Assembly hall when Bashir gets up to speak, as had been done with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Power has said that Bashir’s attempt to come to the UNGA was “deplorable,” “cynical,” and “hugely inappropriate.”

Either way, Sudan activist groups and their celebrity allies will be doing what they can to make the Bashir visit a failure and an embarrassment, if and when he might arrive.

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“Along with the Sudanese diaspora, celebrity activists, human-rights organizations, and student groups, we will be amplifying these efforts through our own public activism,” the letter states. “The U.S. government’s continued attention to this issue will be instrumental in finding a holistic solution to the challenges facing the Sudanese people.”