The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

Darfur Matters: Do Americans Care More About the Children in Sudan?

by Louise Belfrage
News Editor, The WIP
Argentina/Sweden

Having spent the summer months in Europe, away from my home in busy, wintry Buenos Aires, many observations have become permanent tenants in my mind. One of the issues that I am most consumed by is how much personal interest in or caring about critical international issues differs from continent to continent. Personally, I find myself hungrily reading everything written on the four yearlong conflict in Sudan and the horrific, unabated genocide in Darfur.

But in Sweden for example, people seem to care more about the seasonal outbreak of algae in the Baltic Sea or the great invasion of Spanish snails, commonly called “Murder-Snails”. When asked about the latest developments in Darfur, Kosovo or Zimbabwe, Swedes are not as concerned. Perhaps it’s understandable – these places are far away, and at the very least, these conflicts are extremely complicated. Besides, Swedes have always had a warm and special relationship with Nature.

I encountered similar levels of disinterest in France and in Italy. The French seem to be either very upset or very thrilled about their new Le President de la Republique, as many call Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy. Italians on the other hand seem most concerned about the difficulties switching to the European currency is causing them. They complain loudly about how they no longer can afford the month-long vacations they used to be able to enjoy. “Now only Americans come to spend their cash,” sighed the owner of my bed and breakfast inn in Bellagio, by Lake Como in northern Italy.

One can only speculate as to why the most pressing foreign policy issues on the minds of Europeans, are the growing surge of immigration from Turkey, concerns about the new EU members, Bulgaria and Romania, and the old time favorite: why can’t or here is how the Middle East should settle its differences.

With this as backdrop, I was quite surprised that almost no one I spoke to knew or cared that the American actress Mia Farrow had written an eloquent, fuming op-ed in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, warning the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg (the artistic adviser to the Chinese government for the opening ceremony of the Olympics), that if he did not act swiftly he would go down in history as “the Leni Riefenstahl of the 2008 Beijing Games.” A damning comparison. She said people would coin the term “Genocide Olympics” in remembering these Games.

China is Sudan’s largest foreign investor, its largest trading partner and the major buyer of Sudanese oil – which accounts for 70 % of Sudan’s total global export. It is also a major provider of arms to Sudan. The UN has reported sightings of Chinese small arms, military trucks and other war material being used by the Janjaweed militia in Darfur. Ms. Farrow and her son Ronan posed a bitterly stinging question that should have given Mr. Spielberg good cause to re-examine his commitment to China:

Is Mr. Spielberg, who in 1994 founded the Shoah Foundation to record the testimony of survivors of the Holocaust, aware that China is bankrolling Darfur’s genocide?

Soon thereafter, Spielberg wrote an open letter to China’s president, Hu Jintao:

I am writing this letter to you, not as one of the overseas artistic advisors to the Olympic Ceremonies, but as a private citizen who has made a personal commitment to do all I can to oppose genocide. …Accordingly, I add my voice to those who ask that China change its policy toward Sudan and pressure the Sudanese government to accept the entrance of United Nations peacekeepers to protect the victims of genocide in Darfur.

Midha Ali fled her village in Darfur for Cairo two years ago. She was detained for four days after participating in a 90-day protest in front of UNCHR’s offices in Cairo when they stopped processing Sudanese applications for refugee status.

In my beloved Argentina, no one I know is even remotely aware of the ongoing genocide in Sudan. The fighting in Darfur has killed an estimated 200,000 people, at the very least, and left more than 2 million homeless (figures vary); but this is not on the minds of Argentineans. They are much too occupied with accusing their own leaders of committing “genocidio” – which is how the media and public protests are labelling the Kirchner government’s ineffective policies towards malnourishment and rapid rise in food prices due to a badly controlled inflation.

But things have started to move in a positive direction for those still living in Darfur. In late July, the United Nation’s Security Council finally agreed to send a hybrid U.N.-African Union (AU) contingent of 26,000 peacekeepers to Sudan, the world’s largest such force ever. But criticism of the plan has already begun. Many say that this help is coming too late and that the peacekeepers’ poorly defined mandate will prevent their doing anything of real value. Jan Pronk, the former Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation and later the Minister of Environment, was from 2004-2006 the U.N. special envoy for Sudan. He was expelled from Sudan at the end of last year because he spoke openly about the military defeats that the Sudanese government had suffered fighting the rebels. He says the U.N. resolution was terribly watered down. “Everything has been taken out. For refugees to return home, you first have to drive out the militants. This is not addressed.”

At the moment, the new UN envoy, Jan Eliasson, former president of the UN General Assembly and Swedish Minster of Foreign Affairs, and his counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU special envoy to Darfur, are working to unite the multiple rebel groups in South Sudan. Since a peace deal last year, Darfur insurgents who did not support the agreement have split into more than a dozen factions, presenting a major barrier to any peace talks. Five rebel groups joined in July 2007 in Eritrea under the umbrella United Front for Liberation and Development (UFLD), but their armed forces have not yet united. “All the leadership council will move to the field in Darfur. The aim is to finish uniting all the armies into one group,” spokesman Abdel Aziz told reporters. Meanwhile, various rebel political leaders and field commanders met in Arusha, Tanzania in early August and agreed on a common negotiating position for new talks with Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

While the recent talks in Tanzania established some common ground, not all parties attended. Suleiman Jamous, for one, whom the rebels put forward as a potential peacemaker, was still held by the Sudanese government in Kadugli Hospital. Fortunately, he was released earlier in August in order to receive medical treatment in Kenya, but on the condition that he did not return to Darfur and fight. This was done thanks to a widespread international campaign, including statements from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams. Mia Farrow even offered her own freedom in exchange for his.

Although it is clear that the new UN/AU force can’t solve the problem in Darfur by itself, political talks between rebels and government is essential, it is an achievement to have gotten both Russia and China on board. A so called “world opinion” has now been formed on the subject. At long last, world leaders can declare that the Darfur genocide is a tragedy without breaking a diplomatic taboo!

What I find most remarkable in viewing these events, apart from the fact that the United Nations is finally turning its attention to the suffering in Darfur, is that the American public seems to want “to do something.” There is a sense of urgency that is completely lacking in European public opinion. For instance, the website www.SaveDarfur.org has been putting a lot of pressure on the US government to intervene in Sudan. Now that the UN resolution has been passed, it is now focusing its efforts on making sure the US fulfils its promises to the UN. There are many intense email campaigns – and there is the determined Ms. Farrow.

Where does this interest come from? Why do Americans seem to care more about the children in Sudan than do the Swedes or the Argentines? Surely Bush’s unilateralism has lost its appeal, but this is different. Are Americans really ready to engage in yet another conflict zone? I cannot help but think that an underlying American feeling of guilt – especially in relation to Iraq – is creating this strong need to be of service. While the conflict in Darfur is by no means simple to resolve, perhaps when compared with Iraq, it could appear so.

After all, what can an ordinary citizen do about Iraq? It is complicated, depressing and seemingly insoluble. Every day we read new analyses by different experts; amateur commentators debate the pros and cons for of leaving Iraq versus staying in Iraq. The talk is endless; solutions seem farther away than ever. Americans can try to put pressure on the presidential candidates at home, but surely that is not as emotionally rewarding as trying to build peace and save lives in Sudan. That a resolution has been agreed upon in the Security Council and a joint peace force is at last on the way is something to hold onto. And it’s certainly a welcome contrast to the never ending flood of bad news from Baghdad.

There has been much speculation lately that the US 2008 election could bring decisive, important changes in US foreign policy. That would be a step in the right direction, but only if withdrawal from Iraq is motivated by more than consciousness of what it costs to keep troops in Iraq.

But there are signs that this year could really turn into a window of opportunity. Perhaps world awareness will force changes in the policies of governments committing mass human rights violations. Let’s hope so. After all, two internationally influential events – the American elections and the Olympic Games in Beijing are both being held next year. Ms. Farrow for one saw enormous potential in 2008. As she commented to the American radio network NPR, “It was apparent that one thing that China holds more dear than unfettered access to Sudanese oil is its successful staging of the 2008 Olympic Games.” That has to be good for the desperate refugees in Darfur.

Organizers from www.SaveDarfur.org recently lit an alternative Olympic torch near the Chad-Darfur border. It will be carried to locations of past mass murders across the world – including a Holocaust site in Germany. Its final destination will be China. And China is not the only player which can affect the outcome of the Darfur catastrophe. Israel just admitted 500 refugees from Sudan, and says it might accept even more. This was done in response to powerful pressure from brave individuals in Israel who refused to sit and watch survivors from Darfur be turned away at the border of Egypt. If more and more countries in the world realize that Darfur matters, perhaps shattered lives there can not only be saved, but restored to some semblance of normalcy.

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