Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Moving China on Darfur

November 6, 2007

China has a reputation for being impervious to outside pressure. But perhaps even this mountain can be moved. A pointed question posed to Steven Spielberg in an op-ed published in these pages may be influencing Beijing's foreign policy.

Many are aware of the human tragedy in Darfur in western Sudan -- more than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced, mainly because of attacks by the Janjaweed, Arab militias armed and supported by the Khartoum government. Fewer know that China has fueled the conflict and kept the world community from protecting the victims. China's unquenchable need for foreign energy makes it Sudan's largest foreign investor and most important international supporter. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation has invested at least $5 billion in Sudan, which supplies 7% of China's oil.

China is also Sudan's largest arms supplier, and according to a recent U.N. investigation, the source of most weapons used to attack civilians in Darfur. Although the U.S. government and many others have called Darfur a genocide, China has blocked multinational efforts to deal with it, opposing economic sanctions, an arms embargo and the dispatch of a U.N. peacekeeping force to the region.

On March 28, this newspaper published an op-ed by actress Mia Farrow and her son1, Yale law student Ronan Farrow, which branded the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing the "Genocide Olympics" because of China's role in blocking international efforts to address Darfur. The op-ed targeted film director Steven Spielberg, who in April 2006 agreed to serve as an artistic consultant for the Beijing Games. The Farrows warned that Mr. Spielberg would "go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games" unless he helped push Beijing to change its policy of supporting Sudan's opposition to sending a robust U.N. peacekeeping force to Darfur. Mr. Spielberg responded with a tough letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, threatening to quit as artistic adviser if Beijing did not act.

Mr. Spielberg wrote to President Hu: "I believe there is no greater crime against humanity than genocide. I feel strongly that every member of the world community has a moral and ethical responsibility to act to prevent such crimes, to eliminate the conditions in which they are bred and to combat them wherever they exist. . . . There is no question in my mind that the government of Sudan is engaged in a policy [in Darfur] which is best described as genocide."

Mr. Spielberg spoke out because he is concerned about genocide, and he has a reputation to protect. He directed the widely-revered Holocaust epic "Schindler's List," and is the founder of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, a documentary archive of 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors from 56 countries.

Seasoned China observers were astonished when the Chinese acted on Mr. Spielberg's message. On April 13, the New York Times reported that China had sent a senior official, Zhai Jun, to Sudan to push the government to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force. Mr. Zhai also visited Darfur to tour three refugee camps. According to the Times, "Credit goes to Hollywood -- Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg, in particular," citing the "crucial role" played by Ms. Farrow's campaign "to label the Games in Beijing the 'Genocide Olympics.'"

More evidence that the Farrow op-ed and the Spielberg letter were having an effect came on July 31, when China changed its long-held position in the U.N. Security Council and supported a resolution to send a peacekeeping force of 26,000 to Sudan, with enforcement authority under U.N. Charter Chapter 7.

Darfur relief groups report that 10,000 people a month die of disease, starvation or the continuing violence. Not a single U.N. peacekeeper is on the ground, three months after the Security Council voted to send them. Without a robust peacekeeping force, aid agencies cannot supply the camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad.

China needs to push Khartoum to accept the U.N.-authorized force. This calls for another strong message from Mr. Spielberg, suspending his participation in the Beijing Olympics until the U.N.-authorized force is deployed in Darfur. It is also time for the principal corporate sponsors of the Beijing games to speak out. There are more than 20 of them, and some are reportedly paying as much as $80 million to burnish the image of a country many believe is aiding and abetting a genocide. Corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics may also find that calling on China to act on Darfur just might make a difference.

Mr. Greathead is a lawyer in New York City and CEO of World Monitors Inc. This commentary is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book "China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges," (Seven Stories Press).

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