WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is hoping the Muslim world’s leaders join him in confronting extremist ideology when he attends a weekend summit in Saudi Arabia.
But the event could be overshadowed by a surprise attendee: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and shunned by the United States for the past decade.
It’s not clear if al-Bashir will actually attend the meeting. Saudi officials say he has been invited. That prompted American diplomats to press Riyadh to at least avoid any situation in which Trump and Bashir are seen together, according to U.S. officials familiar with the situation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the delicate diplomacy.
Sudan’s foreign minister said Wednesday in Geneva that al-Bashir would be traveling to Riyadh and planned to attend the conference. More than 50 Muslim leaders are expected.
Washington’s unease over Bashir’s potential presence at the conference was evident in a statement released earlier Wednesday by the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.
“In response to rumors recently circulating in the media, U.S. Embassy Khartoum reiterates that the United States has made its position with respect to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s travel clear,” it said. “We oppose invitations, facilitation, or support for travel by any person subject to outstanding International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants, including President Bashir.”
SUDANESE PRESIDENT Omar al-Bashir, wanted by ICC for alleged war crimes, invited to share podium at Islam summit with President Donald Trump pic.twitter.com/huFAsnOieC
— NationBreakingNews (@NationBreaking) May 17, 2017
The statement added that despite an easing of U.S. sanctions that occurred in the final days of the Obama administration, Sudan remains a designated “state sponsor of terrorism” by the State Department.
That designation led Sudan to be included among the countries the Trump administration wanted in a temporary travel ban. The order is still being challenged in U.S. federal courts.
Al-Bashir, who has been Sudan’s leader since 1989, is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sudan’s Darfur region. The U.N. estimates 300,000 people died last decade as conflict raged in the region, which is about the size of Texas. Some 2.7 million are estimated to have fled their homes.
The U.S. is not a member of the ICC but has repeatedly called for member states to respect their obligations to the court. It expressed disappointment when South Africa refused to arrest Bashir while he attended an African Union summit there in 2015.
As such, U.S. officials have tried to avoid appearances with Bashir. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was criticized for taking part in a group photo at an event in Egypt in 2015 that Bashir also attended.
Trump can expect similar or stronger criticism from human rights groups should he have even incidental contact with Bashir, which could distract his plans at the conference.
The president intends to “deliver an inspiring, yet direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology” and “his hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said on Tuesday.
Trump already has a tough sell, having called throughout his presidential campaign for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country. Since taking office, though, he has cultivated relations with leaders in Muslim countries like Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
McMaster said Trump’s speech will be aimed at uniting the Muslim world against common enemies, such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.