Celebrity Shines a Spotlight on Darfur

John Prendergast and Don Cheadle i i

John Prendergast and Don Cheadle in Darfur. Rick Wilkinson hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Wilkinson
John Prendergast and Don Cheadle

John Prendergast and Don Cheadle in Darfur.

Rick Wilkinson

President Bush has called for new sanctions against the government of Sudan, but celebrities have also been enlisted in the work of maintaining daily awareness of events in troubled regions. John Prendergast, senior adviser with International Crisis Group, and actor Don Cheadle talk to Tony Cox about their new book on Darfur, Not On Our Watch, the role celebrities can play in social issues, as well as what all of us can do help end the violence in Sudan.

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TONY COX, host:

And our last headline brings us to Darfur. The Sudanese ambassador to Washington had hard words for the White House yesterday. He said President Bush's has stepped up U.S. sanctions against Sudan could unravel an ongoing peace process in Darfur, and cause the entire country to splinter. President Bush ordered the sanctions to put new pressure on the Sudanese government.

Fighting in Sudan's western Darfur region has raged since 2003, with at least 200,000 people killed and more than a million displaced. President Bush also called for U.N. sanctions, but critics there worry such a move could hurt the very people it is designed to help. And Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he wants more time to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

I spoke to John Prendergast, a senior adviser with International Crisis Group and with actor-activist Don Cheadle, who are the authors of a new book about Darfur - "Not On Our Watch". I asked Prendergast if he believed the timing was right for President Bush's new sanctions

Mr. JOHN PRENDERGAST (Senior Adviser, International Crisis Group; Human Rights Activist; Author, "Not On Our Watch"): Well, for four years, we waited while the diplomats have tried to secure an end to the suffering through dialogue alone, and that hasn't worked. So, the tendency emanating from the White House is the right one - the idea that we need to impose a cost, we need to start ratcheting up pressure on the government of Sudan for committing these crimes.

However, it's just simply not enough. And, you know, most importantly, it's not multilateral enough. The United States has to work through the United Nations Security Council to make any action in response to the genocide meaningful.

COX: So, there is - is there any significance to the timing of the president's action?

Mr. PRENDERGAST: I think that the clock was just ticking so loudly in the background. You know, we have constituencies all over this country, faith-based and non-faith-based, that are demanding the president act on Sudan. And I think that he has made so many warnings and set so many deadlines that he, you know, is becoming non-credible.

So, the action - I mean, there just had to be some action, and they gave Ban Ki-moon an extra month to allow him to work his diplomatic magic. There was none. No rabbit came out of the hat. In fact, Bashir sent him a letter that was very insulting, and I think that signaled the point that we really just simply have to start creating a very significant cost to the actions and the destruction that the Sudanese regime is responsible for.

COX: Don Cheadle, let's talk about the book for a moment - "Not On Our Watch". What's the purpose of this book?

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor; Human Rights Activist; Author, "Not On Our Watch"): Well, I think it was a - John and I have been talking about this for years, since we both traveled to the region and shared a lot of stories and sort of tried to coordinate our efforts. And I had a Web site, and I had gotten a lot of hits on the Web site. And I had comment, question - a comment and question section, and I'd say every second or third, you know, letter or comment that I got was about Darfur, about Rwanda, or about what can we do when we are faced with situations like this in the world?

And instead of trying to, you know, answer all of them piecemeal, I said to John, it would be great if we could put together a kind of document that not only gave an accounting of what we have personally done, but what we think should be done and what can be done and what others have done. And, you know, I wanted it to be something that was just kind of easily, you know, digested and people can get through it quickly and kind of get an overview. And that's where the book came.

COX: Have either of you noticed any changes during your visits to Sudan that indicate how things on the ground seem to be going now?

Mr. PRENDERGAST: Well, I think that the massive difference is that you have -if there wasn't this kind of an outcry in the United States, if there wasn't kind of activism that we're seeing, there would be no major humanitarian assistance effort, and people would be starving to death all over Darfur.

But that being said, the situation isn't improving. It's not improving on the ground, and that's because, again, these guys who are committing the atrocities guided and led by the government of Sudan, have yet to face any kind of a repercussion.

COX: You both have been on the front line in an effort to spread the word, so to speak, about the conflict in Darfur and to generate more interest here in America and elsewhere. How would you say, Don, that the conflict there - the genocide, as it's called - has weighed on the minds of African-Americans here in this country as compared to other conflicts in Africa such as Rwanda's?

Mr. CHEADLE: Well, I think with Rwanda, you know, we're talking about something that happened in a hundred days that was just a blitzkrieg. Very few people around the world knew what was happening. I mean, those in power knew. Obviously, the United Nations knew. But when I was filming "Hotel Rwanda," you know, I was learning that very few people who knew anything about what had happened in Darfur. And in South Africa during that time, they were very preoccupied with getting their own freedom and the end of apartheid and Mandela. And that's, you know, figuratively right down the street, and they had no idea what was happening in Rwanda. So, there's that - that's a common theme.

But I think what we've seen in the United States - as a result of this activism, as result of this collective - is that we're some of the most informed people in the world about it. By we, I mean the citizens here, and John and I have seen a huge up-swelling of interest and of activism around this point.

COX: John, let's talk about China's role in Sudan for a moment, and how that may be undergirding the position that President Bashir has taken against the world community.

Mr. PRENDERGAST: Yeah. The Chinese are the biggest investors in Sudan's oil sector, and, of course, the oil sector there produces about $4 billion or $5 billion a year in hard currency for the Sudanese to buy weapons with. They've been their major backer in the United Nations Security Council.

All of a sudden, China has a different calculation to make, because they want -they're hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and they want to present a new face to the world. They hired Steven Spielberg to do the opening and closing ceremonies in the Olympics.

They want to present this face. And so activists all over the United States and now globally are starting a campaign that would directly connect the Chinese and their hosting the Olympics with their underwriting genocide in Darfur. And this has begun to have an impact already on Chinese calculations. It's moving them towards the possibility that they could become a more constructive actor here.

The U.S., I think, has to take the lead. I mean, Don and his buddy George Clooney had to go over to China themselves to demonstrate that we as Americans need to be engaging the Chinese on this question of Sudan. And as soon as they went, of course, a flurry of high-level American officials went over. We need a sustained engagement with China to work together to get the crisis in Darfur resolved.

COX: What was that visit like, Don Cheadle?

Mr. CHEADLE: It was very strange. I mean, a lot of concern that we were going to get out, knowing what we were coming there to say. And, you know, I say that half facetiously. I mean, when you're sitting in those offices and sitting with those people and kind of know the history of the regime anecdotally with human rights, you sit there and say, well, what can I really say to these people as an actor and an athlete - we took along two Olympic athletes - it's like, what can we say to you that's going to really change any of your calculations with regards to what you're doing with your oil business in the Sudan?

But then we did see - as John said - very quickly, after we left, that there was a flurry of activity. Mia Farrow wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg saying, you know, you may be the Leni Riefenstahl of the 2008 Olympics, and that created a huge stir in China, has gotten them very nervous, and really want to put a public face on this that represents what their motto for their games are, which is one world, one dream. So we want to keep saying, well, that's one world one nightmare until they act more robustly and strenuously to deal with their partners in this, which is the government of Sudan.

COX: Our time is running short. I have two more points I'd like to address with the both of you. First is to you, John. The groups that Bush targeted on Tuesday exclude many large outfits in the country. What purpose - we're talking about the sanctions now - what purpose does that serve, and who was helped and who was hurt?

Mr. PRENDERGAST: Oh, really, it's almost - it's a remarkable thing that so much fanfare was made of so little. As long as the United States is acting unilaterally when we impose these unilateral sanctions in Sudan - the Sudanese have had 10 years to prepare for it. President Clinton imposed comprehensive sanctions against Sudan in 1997. And so for 10 years now, the Sudanese have learned ways to circumvent any new unilateral action when the U.S. acts alone.

So adding 30 more companies onto a list that already is about 130 strong doesn't have any impact. What would have an impact is if we went to New York and worked in the Security Council to get many of those companies listed multilaterally, so that other countries would participate with us in an embargo and a sanction of these companies.

COX: Final question is for you, Don, and it's this: You've used film as a medium in the past to raise awareness on African affairs such as "Hotel Rwanda". Let's say you were to make a film about this conflict. What real-life character would you choose to tell the story through - for example, Bashir, perhaps, similar to the way "The Last King Of Scotland" was made?

Mr. CHEADLE: You know, that's a good question. I've been asked that, and I don't really have an answer. I think that there are numerous stories that could come out of the region that dramatize that would able to bring people into not only awareness but some sort of activism.

But it would be finding what that story would be and how to tell it in a way that would connect people. Because there's one thing I think "Hotel Rwanda" did successfully was tell the story about a person. You can't tell the story necessarily about an issue or about an event because that - I think that's what we're seeing now, that that's hard for people to sort of get their minds around and get their arms around. But if you find the story of an individual, then maybe you could do that. I don't know. That's an interesting question. It's something I've been pondering a lot.

Mr. PRENDERGAST: Hey, Don, I got a script for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Don Cheadle, John Prendergast, thank you both very much.

Mr. CHEADLE: Thank you.

Mr. PRENDERGAST: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: John Prendergast is senior advisor with International Crisis Group. Don Cheadle is an Academy-Award nominated actor. Together, they've written a new book about the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan called "Not On Our Watch".

And just ahead, the politics of sports, with writer Dave Zirin, and New Orleans's struggling music makers.

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