For stirring drama from the moral high ground, it's tough to beat Emile Zola's letter of 1898 to France's President Felix Faure.
"J'Accuse," Zola wrote -- "I accuse." Zola accused the French government of wrongly convicting Alfred Dreyfus of espionage and treason, and pressing the trumped-up charges because Dreyfus was Jewish.
Moreover, Zola concluded the entire French defense ministry had hidden the truth and committed a heinous cover-up. Dreyfus' conviction was later annulled -- but after he served time in the wretched French prison on Devil's Island. The French judicial system was corrupted; the corrective process was slow. Still, democratic France existed within the precious sphere of "the rule of law." Poor Dreyfus received belated but deserved justice.
This week, a senior International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor decided to seek an arrest warrant for Sudan's noxious leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The prosecutor accuses Bashir of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region. No one who has been following the savage conflict can doubt the validity of the charges against Bashir or the other senior leaders in his despicable regime.
The prosecutor's press release lacks Zola's art, but as official statements go it packs power:
"Evidence shows that Al Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups, on account of their ethnicity. ... Al Bashir failed to defeat the armed movements, so he went after the people. ... His intent was genocide."
The Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, Darfur's predominant ethnic groups, rebelled against what they called "favoritism towards Arabs" by Bashir's government. Bashir claims neighboring Chad supports the rebellion, and to a degree it does.
The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died, and most of the dead are Darfuri civilians. The fighting has created 2 million refugees.
The prosecutor believes that on Bashir's orders, "janjaweed" militias have committed atrocity after atrocity -- despite the presence of an African Union peacekeeping force. The new United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force hasn't been effective, either.
Should the warrant be granted, the prosecutor faces a major procedural problem: enforcing the writ.
Politically sovereign Sudan lies outside the reach of the prosecutor's "rule of law." Send a willing policeman into Khartoum with orders to cuff Bashir, and should the cop get off the plane, his next stop will be a jail cell -- a cell controlled by Bashir's secret police.
Arresting an armed and well-protected thug like Bashir requires either a coup d'etat by his opponents within Sudan or regime change by foreign military action. Bashir's opposition, however, is fragmented.
Credible combat power -- well-armed, well-led, well-supported soldiers with full authority to use decisive, deadly force -- can be deployed in Darfur. That will save more lives than an arrest warrant the ICC cannot enforce. The United Nations, however, has failed to get the international support.
The threat of prosecution does have a symbolic purpose. Like Zola's letter, it has media impact. It is an embarrassment for Bashir.
An actual warrant is an intimately personal form of harassment, putting a crimp in Bashir's travel plans should he visit countries other than rogues like North Korea or Eritrea. However, issuing the warrant may make reaching a peace settlement more difficult. The ICC's decision to indict Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony ought to give peacemakers pause. Kony faced trial on murder and rape charges. Why make a peace when peace means jail?
Embarrassment? The threat of arrest achieves that purpose. Harassment? An issued warrant achieve this. Imprisonment? Improbable. Promoting a peace agreement? Uncertain.
But as a call for justice? "As they have dared, so shall I dare," Zola wrote in "J'Accuse." "Dare to tell the truth ..."