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A coalition of international lawyers, advocates, and celebrities — including luminaries and anti-genocide campaigners George Clooney and Don Cheadle — have teamed up to send a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to take action ahead of the possible visit from an indicted war criminal.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2009 on charges of war crimes — including genocide — against the civilian population in Darfur, issuing a warrant calling on governments to arrest him and send him The Hague for trial. Since then, however, Bashir has faced only modest travel restrictions, having been forced to avoid several international conferences on the grounds that the host countries were obliged to arrest him under the ICC’s Rome Statute, even as atrocities continue to be carried out in the Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions of his country.
Now Bashir is preparing to travel to the United States next week for the United Nations General Assembly’s fall session, having submit a request for a visa to enter the country. The prospect of a man wanted for genocide freely entering the country was too much for activists to tolerate, leading to them sign onto a letter that was delivered to President Obama on Thursday morning.
“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,” the letter reads. “While we recognize that the U.S. government is obliged to facilitate President Bashir’s visit under the UN Headquarters Agreement, we urge you to do everything in your power to prevent the trip.”
The Obama administration has yet to take action on the visa request, but doesn’t seem at all pleased with the prospect of allowing Bashir into the country. “Such a trip would be deplorable, cynical and hugely inappropriate,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who previously was a campaigner against the very war crimes Bashir has been indicted for committing. The ICC itself meanwhile has called for the U.S. to arrest Bashir should he actually land on American soil.
One potential action the letter suggests Obama take is announcing that the Department of Justice will explore a criminal case under the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007, which allows for anyone present within the U.S. to be prosecuted for genocide. “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 letter continues.
“If Bashir ends up coming to the U.S. despite the administration’s best efforts to convince him otherwise, all legal channels should be explored for prosecuting him under existing authority,” said John Prendergrast, co-founder of The Enough Project, in a statement. “His visit also highlights the deadly conflicts continuing to rage in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile regions of Sudan. President Obama should lead efforts at the UN General Assembly meetings to construct a credible and comprehensive peace process”
Other potential options involve invoking the “security reservation” built into the UN Headquarters Agreement to justify denying Bashir a visa. Such a move isn’t unprecedented, as when the U.S. denied PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat permission to enter the country to attend the annual meeting in 1988. In this instance, the advocates argue, the Obama administration could justify such a denial through Presidential Study Directive-10, which labeled the prevention of mass atrocities is a core national security interest.
“As Americans concerned by the ongoing atrocities in Sudan, we support your administration’s thoughtful response to this unique diplomatic challenge,” the letter concludes. “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 U.S. government’s continued attention to this issue will be instrumental in finding a holistic solution to the challenges facing the Sudanese people.”
Both Clooney and Cheadle have a history in the genocide-prevention community. Clooney is one of the co-founders of the Satellite Sentinel Project, a group dedicated to using commercially-own satellites to map possible war crimes. And Cheadle, after starring in Hotel Rwanda about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, co-founded the group Not on Our Watch. “Each time that President Bashir is allowed to travel freely, and without the threat of arrest, is another blow to accountability and justice for his victims,” Cheadle wrote in a separate statement. “The legal issues involved in Bashir’s travel to the UN are complicated, but we hope that the U.S. and other countries do everything in their power to prevent this trip.”