Can Hollywood Save Darfur?
Editor’s note: Chris Alden, senior lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, contributed this post on Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal from his involvement in the Beijing Olympics. Alden is the author of the acclaimed China in Africa, part of the African Arguments series to which Alex de Waal’s book on Darfur, written with Julie Flint, also belongs.
Steven Spielberg’s decision to publicly withdrawal from his post as artistic director of the Beijing Olympics has reignited a simmering debate as to China’s relationship with the Sudanese government and its role in the troubled Darfur region. In what appears to be a carefully worded statement, Spielberg acknowledges that while the Sudanese government bore the ‘bulk of the responsibility’ for crimes in Darfur, the ‘international community and China in particular should be doing more’ to halt the violence. A coalition of Western NGOs and activists as well as politicians have seized upon Spielberg’s announcement to call for a possible boycott of the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese government issued a testy response the following day, saying it ‘regretted’ the eminent Hollywood director’s move and pointing out that it also shared concerns about the situation in Darfur.
Of course the underlying point that death continues to stalk the western region of Sudan five years after the onset of conflict is undeniable. After a period of relative quiescence following peace talks in 2005, government backed militias have begun — possibly in anticipation of the peace negotiations in Libya — to engage in a round of new acts of violence. The death toll of nearly quarter of million Darfurians, coupled to the displacement of two million from traditional agricultural lands by marauding Arab militias, caused the US government to characterise the situation as one of ‘genocide’ in 2004. China, with its close trading relationship and willingness to supply arms to the regime in Sudan, is seen by many observers to be the key ally of Omar al-Bashir’s regime and, indeed, in the early period of the conflict actively blocked Western-backed resolutions aimed at Sudan in the UN Security Council. Though Western criticism and NGO protests may have been one factor in changing Beijing’s approach to the issue, especially in light of any purported impact on the 2008 Olympics, it was the concerted action by African governments to introduce an African Union peacekeeping force in 2005 as well as censure al-Bashir which convinced Beijing that it needed to review its approach.
The result was, starting in early 2006, that China began actively engaging in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy aimed getting Sudan to accept the deployment of a hybrid AU/UN peacekeeping force (which was passed in July 2007 under its chairmanship of the Security Council), allowing sanctions to be imposed on Sudanese perpetrators of violence who were cited by the International Criminal Court (April 2006), providing financial assistance for humanitarian relief and peacekeeping operations in Darfur and even participating in the peacekeeping operation itself (November 2007). Moreover, as a sign of the seriousness with which it took the matter, China appointed a special envoy on Darfur, and in so doing further highlighted its actions in the area.
What this resurgent debate highlights is the frustration which all concerned parties — including the Chinese government — feel at the inability of the Sudanese government and rebels to come to a negotiated resolution to the conflict. Two rounds of negotiations, first in Abuja in 2005 and more recently in Sirte in late 2007, have failed to find a formula that can successfully convince the government, its armed militias and the rebels to lay down arms. Part of the problem facing resolution of this conflict is the tenuousness of the CPA itself and the unwillingness of Khartoum, the Southern Sudanese and the African Union to amend it — a key demand of Darfurian rebels at the Abuja talks — for fear of bringing about its collapse. The fact is that the rebel movement itself has split, with one group signing up to the peace agreement in Abuja — and was subsequently marginalised amongst Darfurians — and the other, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) holding out. The dissident SLM leader, Abdel Wahid al Nur, refused to join talks in Sirte in 2007 and in so doing guaranteed their failure. At the same time, where Al-Bashir is most clearly culpable in thwarting the resolution to the crisis is in his government’s studied disregard of the spirit of international community’s wishes, stalling in the implementation of the UN peacekeeping force and continuing to provide succour to the Janjaweed and its leadership.
In reopening the debate on China and Darfur there are really two questions to consider. First, can any external actor do more to halt the spiral of violence in this western region of Sudan, something Spielberg and like-minded activists believe can be achieved by China pressuring the Sudanese government. Certainly it has to be recognised that since 2006, Beijing has gone well beyond any prior foreign policy precedents in its history which has heretofore been dominated by an overriding need to resist any internationally-sanctioned intervention into domestic affairs of states. Furthermore, if Beijing is to take any additional steps against Khartoum it is unlikely to want to act alone and in public — something that NGO campaigners are calling for — in applying high profile measures such as sanctions which of course threaten its own economic (primarily oil) interests. As was the case in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, Chinese actions took the form of an unpublicised suspension of economic activity which may have had a sobering effect on the North Korean leadership and caused them to return to negotiations. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge the limits of any form of punitive actions: al-Bashir’s regime is a desperate one and, like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, is willing to endure hardship and inflict any manner of suffering on others within Sudan in order to stay in power and keep the country from splitting up.
The second question is perhaps equally troubling: does Hollywood want to resolve Darfur and if so, would it end the outcry if the killing stopped tomorrow? For some activists, it is clear that allegations of Chinese inaction in Darfur are primarily a pre-text for mobilising action against the Beijing Olympics based on a wider critique of the Chinese state. This critique is less concerned with identifying real obstacles to change in resolving the ongoing conflict in Darfur but rather to use it as a stepping stone to gain a wider platform. Perhaps activists whose focus is genuinely on the situation in Sudan could themselves commit to a set of benchmarks in the Darfur crisis that are realistic and, if achieved, would bring their campaign to a close. After all, the point of the NGO campaign, at least initially, was to save lives in Darfur and its success should ultimately be measured by that standard.
In the end, what Beijing has to remember is that the hosting of the Olympics is fundamentally about image and profile, so that it is not unexpected that the criticism being experience takes on a Hollywood-esque quality, even if the issues being addressed like Darfur couldn’t be more serious. Public posturing on the Darfur issue may be personally satisfying but it is no substitute for real action in this most complex of conflicts.