Pre-trial judges at the International Criminal Court are expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. As the waiting continues, tensions in Khartoum grow. On Wednesday, Sudanese opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi, who has been openly critical of Bashir, was arrested. If the ICC grants a warrant, aid workers worry about what the repercussions might be to the U. N. relief effort in Darfur, where about 1,000 international staff and 14,000 Sudanese staff are providing aid to more than four million people. Two U.N. peacekeeping operations, composed of almost 30,000 personnel, are also present in the country. John Holmes, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator—the organization's most senior humanitarian official—spoke to NEWSWEEK's Steve Bloomfield in Darfur about the threat of violence against aid workers and his fears for the future funding of the humanitarian operation. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: The ICC judges are expected to decide soon whether to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir. What reaction do you expect from the Sudanese government?
HOLMES: Ultimately, they could throw everyone out. It will leave them with a terrible mess and they won't be able to feed their own people.
What conversations have you had with the Sudanese government about it?
We've told them 'we expect you to leave our operation alone' but I honestly don't know what they will do. They will feel obliged to lash out in some way. Some of them are saying 'give the bastards a good kicking'.
There have already been threats made against U.N. officials and aid-agency workers in Sudan. Are you planning to remove staff?
Lots of contingency plans have been made. We don't know when the decision will be made but we expect it will happen some time in January or February. People may be moved out, yes. You can't imagine nothing will happen.
Sudan's allies claim an indictment could have a detrimental effect on the Darfur peace process.
There is no peace process at the moment. Unfortunately very little is happening on that front.
What effect do you feel the Darfur activist lobby has had on U.S. policy?
There is a very powerful lobby in the U.S.: 'stop the genocide'. That's not a description I subscribe to myself.
Does it do more harm than good?
I do agree with that. When I moved to New York I remember seeing a poster in the subway which read: 'Save Darfur—tens of thousands are dying each month'. That's just not true. They are a bit misplaced but they do create a political context and that can be helpful.
The humanitarian response in Darfur is now in its sixth year. How sustainable is that international support?
I don't know how long can we go on like this. It's a $1 billion a year operation. That generosity has its limits.
You have requested a further $2.2 billion for Sudan in 2009 ($1.05 billion for Darfur). How concerned are you that the global recession will affect the level of donations?
We are expecting it to affect us but so far it's not been a problem. The Americans are very big donors and Darfur is still in the news—it's a sexy political subject. That might change though. The longer the operation has to continue the harder it will be to get funds. South Sudan is more difficult. People assume it's a done deal but it's not. It's still fragile.
You've been to Abyei, the border town between north and south destroyed by fighting in May. Are you hopeful that the two sides can find a peaceful solution?
Abyei is a very delicate, vital area. People feel very bitter. One woman I spoke to said: 'I was born in a crisis, I have lived through a crisis, now it looks like I will die in a crisis'. There is also a lot to do to rebuild confidence in the U.N. force there.
Sudan is due to hold elections this year—the first since Bashir took power in a coup in 1989. How hopeful are you that they will go ahead?
It is very difficult to say. I suspect the timetable will be slipping—at least until the end of 2009.