Views: A Need for Justice in Sudan

The following is a special contribution from Dodd Center National Advisory Board Member John Heffernan and co-author Jennifer Leaning.

A Need for Justice in Sudan

A Sudanese court has convicted longtime dictator Al Bashir of money laundering and corruption. A mere two year sentence of detention denigrates the millions of Sudanese who have had to endure his 30-year reign of terror — massive killings that he oversaw, the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of his own citizens, his wreckage of the entire country.

This murderous tyrant was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide after the killing, maiming and torture of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens in Sudan’s western most province of Darfur. The latest charge and court ruling mock the people of Sudan, spurn the international criminal justice system, and cast scorn on national and international norms of justice.

Whether it is the assault on the survival of hundreds of thousands in Darfur or the millions of people killed in other parts of Sudan during Al Bashir’s tyrannical rule, he and others most responsible for such acts must, as a matter of law and justice, be held to account. With no accountability for this criminal head of state there can be little hope for real change in the country or for democracy and respect for human rights to take hold. Historical patterns suggest that those societies that fail to address the massive crimes of their leaders are more likely to experience them over and over again.

More than fifteen years ago, as human rights investigators, the two of us sat in refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border documenting the systematic destruction of lives and livelihoods in Darfur. We listened to a frail, elderly farmer named Nourein, in the company of 20 or so of his peers, tell us how his village was destroyed by intermittent aerial bombardments over 8 months followed by a fierce early morning all-out ground assault. He described fleeing into the desert, leaving behind his family and animals and all possessions. He said the women stayed behind, and some of them were raped, slowing down the attackers and saving the lives of the men—the real targets. The other men murmured in assent. Now assembled across the border in Chad, these men spoke openly of what they had lost. All their camels and horses, most of the larger livestock. All their crops burned, wells poisoned, stored food and assets stolen. The assailants hotly pursued the men they did not kill immediately into the desert, where exposure, hunger, and thirst claimed many more lives. About half of villagers had survived, regrouping in two camps along the border.

Nourein’s story, and the hundreds of other stories we gathered, highlight what the Genocide Convention calls ”deliberately inflicting conditions of life” calculated to bring about a group’s demise. In Darfur, to survive in the desert meant to live collectively and carefully. The assailants’ attacks, ordered by Al-Bashir, systematically stripped the populations of all means of life and cut off those in flight from reaching humanitarian aid unless they could cross the border into Chad. In great swathes of land in Darfur, village existence was eliminated.

When we returned to the U.S., we called for the protection of Darfurians who remained vulnerable to attacks. At the same time, we emphasized the need to hold perpetrators accountable for these terrible crimes.

In 2010, in issuing an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir, the International Criminal Court (ICC) recognized what we documented several years earlier: Al Bashir’s campaign against the civilian population of Darfur was genocidal.

Justice is an essential component of recovery. In Sudan, the paltry sentence handed down last Saturday, for an offense that pales in comparison to Al-Bashir’s other crimes, cannot patch over his extensive history of atrocities against his people. Al-Bashir must face real justice. He must be apprehended and delivered to the International Criminal Court where his victims deserve to witness the trial of this genocidal architect. The courts in Sudan are not free to carry out justice. So now, finally, the rest of the world must.


John Heffernan and Dr. Jennifer Leaning have traveled extensively throughout Chad and Sudan with Physicians for Human Rights and Heffernan lived in Khartoum from 1990-1993.  Heffernan is the former executive director of the Coalition for International Justice and director of the Genocide Prevention Initiative at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Dr. Jennifer Leaning is a professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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