In Sudan last month, President Omar Hassan al Bashir was removed after street protests staged mostly by people from the Darfur region where al Bashir has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The military ensured al Bashir’s removal in a coup leading to a jubilant crowd. However, the Sudanese generals came down to throttle the hopes for a democratic Sudan by refusing to yield power to civilians.
Al Bashir was no ally of the US or of the US allies in the region. In fact, the usual American allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are throwing their weight, in the form of massive checks and diplomatic clout, behind the Sudanese military to ensure that funny ideas such as democracy are crushed before they reach their thrones. Al Bashir had been a Russian ally. He is wanted by the ICC and there are calls to hand him over to the court for prosecution.
However, while the credentials of the ICC in prosecuting leaders of poor African countries are firmly and unquestioningly established, Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta has somehow been able to dodge the ICC. He was also wanted over war crimes, murder, rape, persecution, and deportation. But a mysterious refusal of a key witness in the prosecution against Kenyatta at the ICC had led to his acquittal.
Kenyatta is not an innocent man just as al Bashir is not, but the former is a US ally and the latter never was. The imperial powers of the world punish people they do not like not only for crimes they have committed but also for being associated with others who may have committed crimes. That creative legal fiction is labeled as crime by association or guilt by association. The so-called American exceptionalism dictates that crimes are what others commit; and since we are the good guys because we tell ourselves repeatedly, anyone who is our ally is good and innocent by default.
This idea is touted not only by those in the power system whose interests it serves but also by a huge number of the American people who genuinely have faith in the American exceptionalism. It is so deeply internalised that we, as Americans, are a force for the good in the world, and so whoever happens to be our ally is a force for the good in the world too. So, it wouldn’t be surprising for a huge majority of the Americans to first of all not know who al Bashir and Kenyatta really are. And if they do happen to know because of their daily reading of the American mainstream newspapers, then they would have a solid view that al Bashir is a war criminal and should be prosecuted by the ICC and Kenyatta being a good guy — credentials stemming from being a US ally — is innocent. This culture of seeing oneself as representing the good in the world is a unique American culture and belief. This sanitised self-image is a quintessential American habit.
Both al Bashir and Kenyatta are war criminals based on their deeds. But make no mistake, their deeds do not determine their guilt or innocence, their association does. Similarly, there are other bigger war criminals in the world who have more blood on their hands. For example, Bush and Blair are responsible for countless innocent deaths in Iraq alone. The scale of their murder, genocide, and other war crimes is much higher than al Bashir and Kenyatta combined. The emperors of the world, who are much bigger war criminals, enjoy a strange impunity despite committing violent acts of aggression. The emperors also determine which pirates, who are smaller war criminals, be punished and which ones be spared. Association with power can cleanse the guilt. Innocence is not the absence of guilt. Morality is no power. Power is power.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2019.