DOHA, Qatar – The U.N. chief confronted Sudan’s embattled president Monday with demands to allow the return of expelled aid groups to Darfur – and was met with a defiant response as Arab leaders rallied to his side to formally reject international war crime charges against him.
The Arab League declaration is likely to boost Omar al-Bashir’s willingness to challenge the West and flaunt his wide support among Arabs in opposing the arrest order by the International Criminal Court.
Al-Bashir’s attendance among other Arab leaders was his boldest public snub of the ICC’s decision, bringing him to the same conference hall as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the summit’s opening speeches. Ban’s spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said the two men were in the same room, but did not speak or interact.
“Relief efforts should not become politicized,” Ban said. “People in need must be helped irrespective of political differences,” he added in an appeal to resume relief efforts to Darfur.
There was no risk of arrest at the summit for al-Bashir, who had full backing of the 22-nation Arab League. The group later issued a formal declaration rejecting the ICC charges.
But it gave al-Bashir a forum to swipe at the court and the U.N. Security Council, which asked the ICC to open the investigation into war crimes in Darfur.
In his speech, al-Bashir called the Council an “undemocratic institution that … applies double standards, targeting the weak and turning a blind eye to the (real) criminals.”
He also offered no sign that he would permit the return of international aid groups to Darfur, where Sudan’s Arab-led government has battled ethnic African rebels for six years. The conflict, according to U.N. estimates, has killed up to 300,000 people and driven 2.7 million from their homes.
Later, al-Bashir expressed “respect and thanks” for the public rejection of the ICC charges.
“We confirm our firm support for Sudan,” said the Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa.
The ICC was established at a U.N. conference in Rome in 1998. The court is independent from the world body and relies on nations backing the ICC charter to carry out its decisions.
The summit had been expected to wrap up early Tuesday before moving to an expanded session with South American leaders. There was no immediate explanation for its early finish on Monday night.
Although Sudan dominated the summit, the opening addresses also reflected underlying tensions about the Arab approach to Israel with Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning government coming to power.
Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, said he still favors pursuing a peace pact with Israel, but insisted that Arabs have a “moral duty” to support militants to force Israel to negotiate. The appeal is apparently part of Assad’s attempts to become a leading voice in any new peace initiative with Israel.
Assad also urged the summit to “take a daring, clear and direct stance that rejects and doesn’t compromise” on the ICC charges against al-Bashir.
Only Jordan and two other tiny Arab League members, the Comoros and Djibouti, are parties to the ICC charter, but they can take no action on Qatari soil.
Before the opening of the summit, a coalition of Middle East human rights groups urged leaders not to protect Sudanese officials accused of atrocities in Darfur – a direct jab at support for al-Bashir.
“There should be no immunity for those who have committed crimes in Darfur,” said the declaration by the Arab Coalition for Darfur, signed by 15 groups from across the region.
The Doha Center for Media Freedom, a watchdog group, called al-Bashir’s presence at the summit a “double standard” by Arab leaders, who have widely backed appeals for an ICC investigation into possible war crimes during Israel’s offensive in Gaza in January.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stayed away from the summit because Qatar has been at odds with Cairo over rival approaches to Darfur and the Palestinian power struggle between Iranian-backed Hamas and Western-backed leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, assured delegates that his nation will retain its Arab identity – an apparent reference to worries among Iraq’s Arab neighbors about the growing influence of Persian Iran.
The talks Tuesday with South American nations are expected to include efforts to expand the rapidly growing trade between the two regions.