Malawi is a small, land-locked country of about 16 million people that rarely plays a large role international politics. However, under its new leadership, Malawi is taking a stand for international justice. Malawi has refused to give in to the African Union’s demands and will not welcome Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the A.U.’s annual summit, which was slated to take place in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court, or ICC, for allegedly orchestrating genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur. All state parties to the Rome Statute, including Malawi, are required to execute the ICC’s arrest warrants if a suspect enters their territory.
Malawi’s recently inaugurated president, Joyce Banda, declined to invite Bashir to the A.U. summit planned for early July. She further confirmed Malawi’s responsibility to arrest Bashir should he enter the country.
After Bashir demanded that the summit be moved to allow for his participation, the A.U. urged Malawi to consent to Bashir’s attendance. The Malawian government reportedly received a letter from the A.U. arguing that it was not permitted to “dictate who could attend” the meeting. Effectively, the A.U. gave Malawi an ultimatum: allow Bashir in to the country or the meeting would be moved to the A.U.’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The government of Malawi opted to cancel to summit rather than acquiesce to Bashir’s presence. Malawi’s Vice President Kumbo Kachali said:
After considering the interests of Malawians, I want to inform Malawians that the cabinet met today and decided it was not interested to accept the conditions by the African Union, therefore Malawi is not hosting the summit…Much as we have obligations to the AU, we also have obligations to other institutions.
Malawi’s decision reflects the stark reversal of policy that accompanies the new administration of President Joyce Banda. Following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda, now Africa’s second female head of state, as well as Malawian civil society and judiciary earned praise for their adherence to constitutional principles of succession. Despite machinations by the late president’s inner circle to subvert the process and install someone other than the duly elected vice president, the transition of power was peaceful, legal, and democratic. The U.S. State Department congratulated Malawi on the process. “The people of Malawi have demonstrated once again their commitment to democratic values as the foundation of the rule of law.”
President Banda cited the “economic implications” of Bashir’s potential presence in Malawi, as many Western donors are reluctant to provide aid to countries sympathetic to Bashir. Malawi is facing tough economic times, and a full 40 percent of its budget comes from foreign aid. Banda’s most daunting task is to repair Malawi’s relationship with donors and standing in the international community after the increasingly erratic and authoritarian regime of her predecessor caused key donors like the U.S., U.K., and Germany to cut off funding.
Despite the tendency for the African Union and African heads of state to close ranks around Bashir, Malawi does not stand completely alone. In November of last year, the Kenyan High Court issued a ruling requiring Bashir’s arrest should he enter the country. While the ruling was internally divisive and caused diplomatic tensions between the two countries it is indicative of a slow but growing trend of Bashir’s isolation.
Moreover, Botswanan President Ian Khama, who is a staunch supporter of the ICC, also voiced opposition to President Bashir’s participation in the July summit. He personally requested that President Banda deny Bashir entry into Malawi. President Khama has been a vocal critical of Bashir and characterized his regime in Khartoum as “resort[ing] to conflict, human rights violations and crimes against humanity to achieve his disgraceful and discredited agenda." President Khama went on to say that Bashir’s “failed leadership is like a cancer in his country.”
In her short time as head of state, President Banda has attempted to rapidly realign Malawi’s domestic, economic, and foreign policy. Refusing entry to one of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers is in keeping with her goal of cementing the norms of democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights. The government’s decision not to give in to the demands of the African Union should be praised and all state parties to the ICC should follow Malawi’s example and refuse to host President Bashir.
Photo: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (AP)