Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack, center, and Erin Barclay attend a briefing on the 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the State Department in Washington, March 20, 2023.

The US is helping the ICC investigate war crimes in Sudan, diplomat says

Roughly 10 million people have been displaced and about 15,000 civilians have been killed due to fighting between two rival generals in Sudan. The ICC has been investigating current ongoing atrocities using a UN Security Council resolution from 2005. The World’s host Carolyn Beeler speaks with Beth Van Schaack, the US ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, about the situation.

When the war in Sudan began nearly a year ago, the conflict centered around two rival generals and their armed forces fighting each other for power in the streets of Khartoum. The fighting between Sudan’s national army and the paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), spread across the country.

Roughly 10 million people have been displaced and about 15,000 civilians have been killed. The Rapid Support Forces is also credibly accused of widespread ethnic killings in Darfur.

Darfur, in western Sudan, was the scene of mass killings starting back in 2003. The vast majority of the perpetrators have never faced justice, and the violence today seems to be a grim new chapter.

The International Criminal Court has been investigating current ongoing atrocities using a United Nations Security Council resultuion from 2005. Since launching the investigation last July, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan announced to the UN Security Council in January that he had reasons to believe that both sides are committing crimes under the Rome Statute. 

The World’s host Carolyn Beeler speaks with Beth Van Schaack, the US ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, about the situation.

Carolyn Beeler: I’m wondering if you can tell us one specific story that can help us understand what exactly is happening on the ground in Sudan?
Beth Van Schaack: In Darfur, in particular, we have witnessed just an explosion of violence against civilians. And, as you mentioned, it’s along ethnic lines. People are just not safe anywhere. They’re not safe in their homes, in mosques, in schools. We’ve read reports about RSF and affiliated Arab militias seeking out people on ethnic grounds, as you mentioned, literally hunting people, shooting them as they’re fleeing for their lives, stealing everything, looting their possessions and then burning entire villages down. So, it’s eerily reminiscent of the genocide that we saw in the early 2000s in Darfur.
The International Criminal Court is investigating this, and I understand that it’s typically difficult for the ICC to get permission to investigate a conflict while it’s still happening. In this case, the ICC is arguing that it can use an authorization granted back in 2005 to conduct an investigation of this current conflict. Could that investigation actually change what is happening in Sudan? 
The prosecutor has announced, with the explosion of recent violence, that he considers that referral to still apply. And of course, that makes sense. It’s many of the same perpetrators, many of the same dynamics of violence, many of the same victim communities involved. And so, it’s impunity for the violence in the early 2000s [that] is very much fueling the violence that we’re seeing today. And you’re correct that the International Criminal Court prosecutors and investigators cannot enter the country without the consent of Sudan. And so, they must do their work extraterritorially. Now we can do this in refugee camps in Chad and along the border. In addition, we’ve really honed the ability to do open-source investigations remotely. So, it is possible to do investigations in a live conflict like this. But it is, of course, exceedingly difficult.
You use the word “we.” Is the US working with the International Criminal Court to prosecute those responsible for alleged war crimes in Sudan? 
The United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but there’s many ways that we can support its work, and we have done so in the Darfur matter. This involves a whole range of types of support. We don’t generally get into details to protect the prosecutor’s investigative trajectory and the confidentiality of their work, but we are able to assist on the diplomatic front and do some information sharing in an effort to give them the insights into where the crimes are happening, what types of crimes and who might be responsible. 
Information sharing, are we talking classified information here? 
Again, I don’t provide information about the specifics of our information sharing.
One of the people at the center of this story is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti. He’s the head of the Rapid Support Forces, which is accused of widespread ethnic killings in Darfur. Do you think the ICC will eventually charge him? 
It’s an open question. Obviously, Hemedti is associated with the Rapid Support Forces as their head. So, we know that the prosecutor can look all the way up the chain of command, and it’s very much about where the facts lead. So, there’s a tendency to start, maybe, at more low levels and then gradually work up the chain of command in order to determine who may be considered most responsible. 
So, if any of those perpetrators in Sudan are charged, what would that actually mean for them? 
Well, at this point, not much. There are some indictments left over from the first wave of violence in the early 2000s. Those individuals have remained at-large because they’ve essentially remained within Sudan. There is no international police force that’s capable of conducting a cross-border arrest. The United States is trying to be of assistance here. We have a global criminal justice rewards program, so we’ve been able to issue a reward for information leading to the capture of [Ahmad Mohammad] Harun, who’s a former minister of state and was on the Darfur security desk. 
A lot of people worry, though, that the outcome in Darfur, once again, will be the same as it was around two decades ago: no accountability. What do you say to them? Why would history not just repeat itself here? 
Well, this is the nature of our system. We don’t have international courts that have the ability to exercise coercive powers within non-consenting states. And so, as long as individuals who’ve been indicted by the International Criminal Court remain in positions of power and authority within their states, they can escape justice. Now, we also know, though, that political transformations happen and that individuals who may be enjoying safe haven may suddenly become persona non grata. Those of us in this field are playing very much a long game, and the hope is that evidence will be preserved for when proceedings can be brought, because somebody has been brought into custody. All of that evidence will exist. 
So, I’ve got to ask, you spend your time ferreting out war crimes around the world. That can’t be an easy job. What is that like for you?
Yeah, this was an enormous job on, like, Feb. 21, 2022, and it became a crushing job after Russia’s full-scale invasion. And I do have a global remit, so I’m meant to be looking at these situations around the world. It’s incredibly difficult. Our job in my office is to look for ways for the United States to be supportive of these various efforts and to do what we can to advance justice.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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