With China in an unrivaled position to influence Sudan to facilitate an end to the genocide campaign in Darfur, various groups are posing challenges for Beijing to boost its prestige as the host of next summer’s Olympic games. The newly formed Olympic Dream for Darfur campaign questions how China can uphold its international image as Olympics host, while extending political cover and economic support to help Sudan finance militia attacks against thousands of its own citizens. To get China to sway Khartoum to end the violence, the group’s director Jill Savitt says that engagement – not an Olympics boycott - is the right approach.
“We’re saying to China, ‘You have this unique relationship. You have protected Khartoum up until now, watering down, blocking, vetoing every resolution. You can’t keep doing that and host the Olympics’,” she said.
Allied since the 1990’s, Sudan and China trade heavily, with Khartoum selling two-thirds of its petroleum exports to Beijing. Their commercial ties are a prime example of China’s bid to increase investments and gain political influence in African countries. China also sells arms to Sudan and as such is seen as having an ability to influence the Bashir government’s conduct of the Darfur conflict, in which more than 200-thousand civilians have been killed and more than two million villagers have been uprooted from their homes since 2003. With next year’s Beijing games focusing world attention on the host country’s prestige, Jill Savitt says she hopes China will work to change Sudan’s behavior to avert challenges from foreign visitors and critics of the Darfur genocide.
“We would hope that there is not a genocide going on a year from now still. If there is still violence and people are unable to leave the camps where the refugees are, and the camps are not improved, China is going to be concerned about what all of the reporters covering the Olympics are saying. There are athletes, former Olympians, current professional athletes, current Olympians, who care about Darfur and who will very respectfully raise the issue when they’re in Beijing. There are people buying tickets as spectators who care about Darfur. We are considering pairing up people from the Darfur region of Sudan who live in exile and buying tickets for them to go to the Olympics to raise these issues,” Savitt points out.
Although several activist groups have credited a so-called “Genocide Olympics” campaign with influencing China’s recent UN Security Council vote to approve forming a hybrid UN – African Union (AU) peacekeeping force of 26-thousand troops for Darfur, Savitt argues that the Olympic Dream for Darfur campaign does not believe that a 2008 Olympics boycott would be effective.
“I have not heard of any non-profit organizations calling for a boycott of the Olympics about the Darfur issue. There were some presidential candidates in France. There are some people in the US Congress who have talked about the issue. But there’s no movement of anyone calling for a boycott. And that’s for a very specific reason. As the Olympics near, the world’s attention is going to be on Beijing about the ideals of the Olympics, and we want to tap into that attention and throw it over to the forgotten people of Darfur,” she said.
Since the group’s formation four months ago, Olympic Dream for Darfur backers have organized their own torch lighting relay events to carry the Olympic spirit and a message of ending the violence in Darfur all the way to China. Actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow launched the torch relay last month from western Sudan at the Darfur-Chad border. Jill Savitt says torch has passed through Rwanda, which experienced its own genocide thirteen years ago. It will also travel to Armenia, Bosnia, Berlin, Auschwitz, and Cambodia before arriving in Hong Kong in December.
“There are miles to go before there is security in Darfur,” says Savitt. “One of the good points now is that leaders are paying attention to the issue. On the down side, there is this notion that talking about the problem somehow addresses it – that trying is good enough. Well, trying is not good enough. We have one thing that must happen for us to stop our campaign, and that is adequate and verifiable security on the ground in Darfur. It should happen. If the United Nations, including China, want to see that happen, we should be able to, as an international community, intervene in the fifth year of a genocide.”