Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir Leaves Behind A Horrific Legacy Of Human Rights Abuse

The long-reigning dictator was toppled this week, but the consequences of his rule continue to be devastating.

Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president deposed by his own military this week after mass protests against his 30-year dictatorship, played a central role in some of the worst atrocities of the past century and left a legacy of human suffering.

Al-Bashir carried out a decades long civil conflict rife with human rights abuses, oversaw a war in the country’s Darfur region that killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others, and gave haven to some of the world’s most violent Islamist extremists, including Osama bin Laden.

Not only did al-Bashir devastate Sudan, but he brought a wider destabilization to countries around it and even further afield both through refugee crises and supporting disastrous military campaigns. Sudan has in recent years sent thousands of militia troops, many of them child soldiers, to fight in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 after a bloodless military coup, and the country spent years after as a hub for Islamist extremist groups who found protection and a friendly government. Along with ally Hassan al-Turabi, he provided a safe space in the early 1990s for extremist ideologues to promote their views and let bin Laden live in the country and build up al Qaeda’s capabilities for five years. The U.S. designated the country a state-sponsor of terrorism in 1993.

Meanwhile, al-Bashir also waged a protracted civil war against rebel groups in southern Sudan in which government troops bombed villages and carried out numerous atrocities. The country’s valuable southern oil fields became the site of scorched earth tactics that included the burning of villages and massive displacement of civilians, according to Jehanne Henry, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division.

In the western Darfur region of Sudan, al-Bashir oversaw a government-backed militia campaign against non-Arab tribes that killed between 200,000 and 400,000 people and displaced millions more. The Janjaweed militia committed war crimes that included forced displacement and the use of rape as a weapon of war, while al-Bashir’s government forces aided them with heavy aerial bombing campaigns that killed civilians. The United States described the conflict as a genocide.

Part of his legacy has been to undermine the international criminal justice order and defy the International Criminal Court.
Mausi Segun, executive director of Human Right Watch’s Africa Division

The International Criminal Court indicted al-Bashir in 2009 for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the atrocities in Darfur. But al-Bashir remained free as the ICC lacks its own enforcement tools and foreign governments such as South Africa refused to detain al-Bashir while he was in their jurisdiction. Al-Bashir’s apparent impunity weakened the standing of the court and the idea of international justice agreements, as he openly mocked the ICC on trips abroad.  

“Part of his legacy has been to undermine the international criminal justice order and defy the International Criminal Court,” said Mausi Segun, executive director of Human Right Watch’s Africa Division.

Al-Bashir is now out of power, following months of mass protests that initially were sparked by a rise in food prices but grew into demands for full-scale political accountability and democracy. Still, human rights groups are pressing for him to face trial before an international criminal court in The Hague. But many of Sudan’s military leaders, like General Ahmed Awad ibn Ouf, who quit after protesters rejected him, are also potentially implicated in government atrocities and have refused to hand al-Bashir over to the ICC.

The consolidation of power in Sudan and promotion of military loyalists has also created fear among protesters that even though al-Bashir is gone, his regime may continue on without hope of transitioning to a civilian government.

Not only has al-Bashir’s rule corrupted Sudan’s politics, rights groups say, but he also bears responsibility for many of the problems of South Sudan ― the nation that was created in 2011 after the cessation of Sudan’s 22-year-long war.

South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war for years, with hundreds of thousands killed and UN reports of horrific human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing and sexual violence. The methods of repression and violence that al-Bashir deployed against the south have since been copied in South Sudan’s own conflict, according to human rights groups.

“The same abusive tactics are being replicated there: the mass rape of women and girls, the recruitment of children,” said Segun. “That is the legacy of Omar al-Bashir.”

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