US State Department stumbles over Bashir questions

Johannesburg - A spokesperson for the US State Department stumbled over an explanation regarding the country's statement about Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's visit to South Africa to attend the African Union summit.

In a transcript of the briefing on the department's website, press office director Jeff Rathke was taken on about the US's perceived double standards regarding Al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir flew out of South Africa on Monday before the High Court in Pretoria ruled that he should be arrested on the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

He has two warrants of arrest against him issued by the ICC, in 2009 and 2010. He faces seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and three counts of genocide.

The US government in a statement on Sunday called on the South African government to respect the ICC's efforts to bring justice to the people in Darfur. The US is not a member of the ICC. 

Below is a copy of the transcript from the briefing held on Monday:

QUESTION: Okay. Last night you guys put out a statement that called on the Government of South Africa to respect the international community’s efforts to provide justice for the victims of – the Darfur victims. This is in relation clearly to the – I mean, what I’m talking about – the International Criminal Court. Now that President Bashir has arrived home, and the South Africans clearly did not hold him there, I’m wondering if you have any opinion about that. And I’m also wondering exactly what it was you were calling for the Government of South Africa to do yesterday.

MR RATHKE: Well, the first – in response to the first part of your question, we expressed concern yesterday about President Bashir’s travel to South Africa for the African Union summit. President Bashir, as people know, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide. And so warrants for his arrest remain outstanding.

And so I can repeat again what we said yesterday. We are concerned by his travel to South Africa for the African Union summit. The Security Council has refer – has urged all states and the concerned regional and other international organisations to co-operate fully with the court and the prosecutor.

So – now with respect to the question of South African actions, again, there were some court actions ongoing yesterday and I won’t speak to the particulars of those – of where those stood, not being an expert on South Africa’s internal processes, but again we – given the international arrest warrant and Security Council action and so forth, we certainly regretted his travel to South Africa and that’s how we see it.

QUESTION: Well, that’s fine but that’s not what I’m asking. He’s now left. So the South African Government let him go despite the court order to have him stay, and I’m wondering what your reaction to that is, and I’m --

MR RATHKE: Well, we’re disappointed that no action was taken and that he was able to attend the African Union summit.

QUESTION: No, but that’s – are you disappointed that they allowed him to leave?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, so – two things. As I said, we’re disappointed that he was able to attend because there is an international --

QUESTION: I got that.

MR RATHKE: -- arrest warrant, and then we’re also disappointed that no action was taken --

QUESTION: To prevent him from leaving.

MR RATHKE: Yeah. Now, what specific action would have been necessary --

QUESTION: So --

MR RATHKE: -- I’m not going to prescribe, but certainly, yes, we’re concerned on both accounts.

QUESTION: Well, can you explain then what you mean when you – what you meant when you called on the Government of South Africa to respect the international community’s efforts to provide justice for the victims of the – for Darfur victims? Did you specifically want the South African Government not to allow him to leave – to arrest him and to transport him to The Hague?

MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to specify what exactly the South African Government had to do to meet that, but I think the call – our call was clear, that there is an international arrest warrant, and South Africa is a party to the Rome Statute.

QUESTION: So they should have --

MR RATHKE: Precisely how they meet that obligation is for South African authorities to determine. But we think that, clearly, some action should have been taken.

QUESTION: Did they meet that obligation? And I don’t think it’s a matter for the South African authorities to determine. To meet the obligation, they would have had to --

MR RATHKE: Well, no, you laid out a very specific set of --

QUESTION: So it’s possible to meet their – so it is possible – it would have been possible for South Africa to meet its obligation without detaining Bashir and sending him to The Hague?

MR RATHKE: Again, Matt, we – our position is that we’re disappointed that he was able to travel. I have not seen confirmation that he, indeed, has departed. I know there have been a lot of reports about that. As of the time I came out here, I hadn’t seen confirmation of those reports. But certainly, if he was able to depart with no action having been taken, then we’re also disappointed by that as well.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield was attending the AU summit. Do you know whether she or the US ambassador to South Africa have expressed this government’s concerns and disappointment about Bashir’s travels both to and from South Africa?

MR RATHKE: Right. Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield and our special envoy, Don Booth, are both in Johannesburg for the African Union summit, and our senior officials have conveyed US views to the Government of South Africa about this situation.

QUESTION: And are the officials satisfied with the response that they got from the South African Government?

MR RATHKE: I’m not going to go into further detail about our diplomatic exchanges on this issue, but we’ve raised our concerns, most certainly.

QUESTION: Why not?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think I’ll leave it what I said.

Yes.

QUESTION: Did the Administration have a position on the South African foreign ministry granting all the attendants of the summit diplomatic immunity?

MR RATHKE: I am not – I’m not – is there --

QUESTION: Well, that’s one of the reasons that he went or felt comfortable going, was that they had promised him in advance that he would have immunity.

MR RATHKE: I’m not aware of that, so I simply don’t have a specific response to that.

QUESTION: What makes South Africa different from other countries where Bashir has travelled to before?

MR RATHKE: Do you have some specific --

QUESTION: You want me to speculate or what?

QUESTION: He was also in Egypt.

MR RATHKE: No, the specifics. I said you --

QUESTION: He – for example, the Secretary was recently in Nigeria for an inauguration. He was on the same VIP tribune as Bashir. There was no call to take action then. Is South Africa special, or you expect more of them than other African countries?

MR RATHKE: Well, I’ll let the South Africans speak to their own --

QUESTION: No, I’m asking about you.

MR RATHKE: -- to their standards.

QUESTION: I’m not asking about South Africa.

MR RATHKE: Right, but --

QUESTION: I’m asking why you ask – demand this from South Africa in this instance, but you don’t demand it in other instances.

MR RATHKE: Well, again, we set --

QUESTION: That has nothing to do about South Africa.

MR RATHKE: We strongly support the ICC’s efforts to hold those accountable who are responsible for genocide, for crimes against humanity, and for war crimes.

QUESTION: Except when they go to Nigeria?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have the detail of every place where President Bashir may have travelled, so I’m not --

QUESTION: He was there. You’re – I mean, the Secretary of State was there probably within 10 metres of him.

MR RATHKE: Well, I mean --

QUESTION: I was there.

MR RATHKE: Well, I have no doubt you were there, Brad, but I don’t have a specific response on that.

QUESTION: Jeff?

MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: I was going to follow up on that. So ahead of time – did the US know ahead of time that Bashir was going to the AU summit?

 MR RATHKE: I don’t have that level of detail. I don’t have a catalogue of those discussions.

QUESTION: And if it was, I mean, did they ask for this arrest to happen before it happened? Or is this just since the AU summit began and everybody had gathered?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have detail about any information that may have been discussed beforehand. I --

QUESTION: And then just to follow up to what Matt was saying, do you believe he should have been arrested?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, the – we strongly support the ICC’s efforts to hold those accountable who are accused of crimes like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity. So we certainly are disappointed that no action was taken.

QUESTION: So why is it that you haven’t joined up?

MR RATHKE: Pardon?

QUESTION: Why isn’t the US a member of the – US a member of the court if you strongly support the court’s --

MR RATHKE: Well, we are not a party to the Rome Statute. That’s --

QUESTION: Is that simply because you don’t believe you can get the approval of it in the Senate?

MR RATHKE: Look, our policy on US – on the US joining the Rome Statute hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: Okay. Well --

MR RATHKE: New topic?

QUESTION: No, same topic.

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Jeff, can you – you said a little bit earlier that officials had conveyed US views to South Africa.

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate on that in terms of timing? Was that concerning the statement that went out over the weekend, or is that something that happened today as a result of Bashir being able to travel back home?

MR RATHKE: Well, the situation has unfolded over the weekend. I’m not going to get into the timing of every exchange, but as this issue came to light we have raised our concerns with the Government of South Africa.

QUESTION: Do you know if there have been any concerns expressed to South Africa within the past couple of hours, or will there be now that there’s word that he has returned to Sudan?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have further detail to offer of our discussions with South Africa in this regard. We’ve – but we’ve certainly made our views clear.

QUESTION: I’d like to change the subject if you’d like.

MR RATHKE: Please.

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