Why did Indonesia invite a leader indicted by the ICC for war crimes?

The Indonesian government invited Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on war crime charges by the International Criminal Court. EPA/Morwan Ali

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and other crimes in the Darfur conflict, failed to attend the 60th Asian-African Conference Commemoration in Indonesia this week.

Al-Bashir had accepted Indonesia’s invitation to attend. He was to arrive in Jakarta early this week, but several countries reportedly denied permission to fly over their airspace.

Responding to Al-Bashir’s initial plan to visit Indonesia, human rights groups had demanded the Indonesian government facilitate his arrest or at least bar him from the country.

Al-Bashir’s cancellation relieved Indonesia of hosting a wanted man and coming under pressure to arrest and extradite him.

But unlike other countries that reportedly made it difficult for Al-Bashir to travel, Indonesia did officially invite al-Bashir to visit.

Why did Indonesia invite the wanted Sudanese president?

Sudan’s place in Asian-African Conference

Indonesia invited the Sudanese president to the 60th anniversary conference because the North African country was one of the original attendants back in 1955. For the Indonesian government, inviting Sudan was simply part of its obligation to invite all original attendants.

Had al-Bashir managed to land in Jakarta, he would have enjoyed his time. Indonesia would not have attempted to arrest and extradite him.

Indonesia’s priority for the summit is to avoid any dramatic disturbances during the commemoration of what it always sees as its most successful foreign policy. For Indonesia, hosting a successful Asian-African Conference would be a mark of international leadership.

Indonesia wants the anniversary of the Asian-African Conference to run smoothly. EPA/Mast Irham

Al-Bashir’s indictment is controversial

From a human rights perspectives, inviting al-Bashir would damage Indonesia’s image for consorting with a wanted man accused of responsibility for war crimes. At the same time, many countries view the ICC’s indictment of a sitting head of state as controversial.

The African Union had stated that the ICC’s arrest warrant for al-Bashir undermined peace efforts in the region. African countries argued that the threat of arrest would encourage dictators to stay in power to prevent them being indicted after they step down.

There are also accusations that the ICC is racist and biased against weak African and Third World countries.

More importantly, there is also the problem of the law of unintended consequences. Arresting a sitting head of state is a prickly issue. We do not know whether the arrest would actually upend regional stability in Africa.

Thus, perversely, by not arresting al-Bashir, Indonesia could actually show that it was listening to the voices of nations in Africa, which saw the West’s double standard applied against them.

Indonesia and the ICC

Indonesia is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and thus does not have an obligation to assist the International Criminal Court in arresting and surrendering a suspect. The court’s jurisdiction applies only to states that agree to be bound by the Rome Statute.

Aside from that, Indonesia’s invitation reflects its own problems with international jurisdiction.

Indonesia’s own head of state has been threatened with arrest overseas on human rights abuse grounds, even without being a party to the Rome Statute. In 2010, a separatist group, the Republic of South Mollucas, asked the Dutch government to arrest the then president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, upon his visit to the Netherlands. While any lawyer worth his or her salt would not take this threat of arrest seriously, Yudhoyono was rattled enough that he cancelled his visit.

It isn’t surprising that Indonesia is not planning to ratify the treaty any time soon or to assist the court in extraditing wanted men.

In 2013, Indonesia’s defence minister said Indonesia needed more time to review the impact of ratification on the country.

Ratifying the Rome Statute might open a can of worms as Indonesia’s alleged human rights abuses would be subject to the court’s scrutiny. There might be calls to arrest Indonesian officials over human rights abuses or various other legal entanglements.

Bitter reality

In the end, the al-Bashir incident shows the sad truth that while every country attending the conference will pay lip service to improving human rights conditions all over the world, politically it is impossible to use this conference to champion human rights. This is due to the simple fact that many of the attendees have their own human rights problems.

For Indonesia, focusing too much on human rights would have the consequence of wrecking the conference, making it a foreign policy embarrassment, rather than the success that Indonesians hoped it to be.