Brave Thinkers

Illustration by Quickhoney

Name: Alex de Waal
Job: Program Director at the Social Science Research Council
Why he’s brave: He foresaw that war-crimes charges wouldn't necessarily bring peace to Sudan.
Quote: “International justice is a virtuous enterprise, but not risk-free.”


The world’s foremost authority on Sudan and the war that has engulfed it since 2003, de Waal was nearly alone among Westerners in arguing that the International Criminal Court should not bring war-crimes charges against Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the dictator responsible for many of the conflict’s 300,000 deaths. De Waal warned that al-Bashir was likely to react violently, that rebel groups would be emboldened to violate hard-won peace agreements, that the ICC had no way to enforce its indictment, and that the whole thing would be a spectacle for the benefit of Western audiences and would only further destabilize the country. Sure enough, when al-Bashir’s warrant was issued in March, Sudan shut down human-rights groups and international aid agencies (including Oxfam and Save the Children), seized their assets, and declared, “For us, the ICC doesn’t exist.” De Waal’s argument was of a piece with his life-long thinking: aggressive international intervention, however well-intentioned (and however consistent with the concept of “Never again”), is often ineffective or horrifically counter-productive. After years of chronicling the horrors of modern Africa—from genocide to extreme poverty to the ravages of AIDS—he believes that ignorant grassroots activism often hinders delicate political compromises and that “salvation delusion” blinds idealistic foreign governments to the hopelessness of military intervention. “When peace and justice clash, as they do in Sudan today,” he wrote in a recent op-ed, “peace must prevail.”

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