Kenya defends failure to arrest genocide-charged Sudanese president; cites national interest

By Tom Odula, AP
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Kenya: Sudan presidential visit ‘in our interest’

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s government on Sunday defended its recent failure to arrest Sudan’s president on international charges of war crimes and genocide, citing Kenya’s strategic interest in the neighboring country.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Richard Onyonka said that arresting President Omar al-Bashir during his recent visit to Kenya may have adversely affected peace in Sudan.

“Apart from being an immediate neighbor, Sudan’s stability is vitally linked to Kenya’s continued peace and well being,” he said.

Kenya drew international criticism for inviting al-Bashir to witness the signing of Kenya’s new constitution on Friday.

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly masterminding the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Sudan is preparing for a major referendum next year in which the south may secede. A 2005 peace agreement established a power-sharing government aimed at ending four decades of on-and-off war between Sudan’s north and south. The agreement also called for the independence referendum. But negotiations have barely begun and tensions are rising.

Onyonka said Kenya has an obligation, both as a neighbor and as a mediator in the peace agreement, to keep talking with the leadership of Sudan’s power-sharing government to ensure that peace is sustained.

He said the Kenyan government also invited Vice President Salva Kiir, who is also Southern Sudan’s leader, to attend Friday’s event.

Kiir could not attend because government protocol does not allow the president and vice president to travel abroad at the same time, Onyonka said.

“We must have a peaceful resolution to the issues of Sudan and Kenya is going to make sure that we achieve the results,” he said. “If it means negotiating with both parties we shall.”

Transport Minister Amos Kimunya said Kenya could not deny an invitation to the president of a friendly neighbor and trading partner.

“It is important, as Kenyans, for us to appreciate that Kenyan interests must come first, regional interests come second and international interests come third,” he said.

He also praised the embattled Sudanese leader for taking the risk to visit Kenya, which is a member of the international court. The court has no police force and depends on member states to enforce its orders.

“We should be thankful to (al-Bashir), that he took the risk on an international warrant against him, to travel out of Sudan to honor the people of Kenya on this momentous occasion … we should be thanking him rather than condemning him and that shows that future of Kenya and Sudan can only get better and not everyone is happy with that,” he said.

Former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, who attended Friday’s event, said in a statement Sunday that he was surprised by the presence of al-Bashir in Kenya’s capital.

He noted that Kenya is being investigated by the ICC for 2007-2008 postelection violence that left over 1,000 people dead and 600,000 others displaced from their homes. In the statement, he recommended that Kenya “clarify its position and reaffirm its cooperation with and commitment to the ICC.”

Onyonka said while Kenya is committed to cooperating with the ICC, that commitment was superseded by an African Union decision to not arrest and extradite al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state indicted by the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal since it was established in 2002. He refuses to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

He was charged in March 2009 with five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes for allegedly orchestrating atrocities in Darfur, a region of Sudan. In July, the ICC charged him with three counts of genocide, the first time the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal has issued genocide charges.

Darfur’s ethnic African rebels rose up in 2003, accusing Sudan’s Arab-dominated central government of neglect and discrimination. U.N. officials estimated 300,000 people died and 2.7 million were displaced.

While the Kenya trip only marked only al-Bashir’s second trip to an ICC member state, he has visited Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt and Libya, attended an Arab League summit in Qatar and performed a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

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