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Darfur Activists Prepare For Possible Beijing Olympics Boycott


China is taking steps to avoid the possibility of an international boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing by becoming increasingly involved in efforts to gain peace in Darfur. Human rights activists accuse China of fomenting the violence in the region, by selling weapons and ammunition to the Sudanese government, and buying oil produced by Khartoum. Peace advocates say the government of Sudan is committing genocide in Darfur, in a calculated campaign to “exterminate” the black ethnic groups that live in the region. Activists say they’ll call for a global boycott of China’s Olympics, if the Far Eastern giant does not put more pressure on Sudan to stop the killings. In the fourth part of a series on China’s role in Darfur, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the potential for the calls for a Games boycott to become a separate campaign around the Darfur issue.

Although analysts and activists are divided as to the possibility of calls for an international boycott meeting with success, most agree that the moves towards punitive action against China have added an important element of pressure on Beijing to achieve a durable peace in Darfur.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much success in getting a boycott, but I also think that the specter of protests and calls for a boycott has gotten Chinese attention in the last couple of months in a very significant way. The threat of a boycott or a disruption of the Olympics has contributed to some of the steps that China has taken (recently),” says Stephen Morrison, the head of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Amongst other efforts that have indicated a change in Beijing’s policies with regard to Sudan, President Hu Jintao recently dispatched his senior Africa policy maker to Darfur – a move Morrison describes as “fairly bold.”

China is also participating in high-level crisis talks about the issue in Paris this week.

But this isn’t enough for activists. They want China to do more to stop the violence in Darfur, where people continue to die every day. And the peace advocates want quick results – something that Morrison feels isn’t feasible.

“It’s a very fragile international peacekeeping operation, and clearly there’ll be a very slow political settlement and in getting a peace operation to function in Darfur. And that (slow movement towards peace) will provide impetus to calls for either protests around the Olympics, or a boycott.”

According to Morrison, while a full-scale, official campaign to boycott the Chinese Olympics is unlikely, calls for it to happen will indeed grow in the months ahead, and they’ll be concentrated in the United States, and, maybe, in parts of Europe.

“Most of those calls…. are not going to be echoed in Asia or Africa. They may be echoed in places like France, where newly-elected President (Nicolas) Sarkozy has called for a boycott of the Olympics if there’s no progress, and now he’s been joined by his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.”

But Joey Cheek, American Olympic Gold Medalist speed skater, says he intends to “travel the world” ahead of the 2008 Games to “recruit athletes from all over, including Africa, to try to stop the genocide in Darfur.”

He hopes that peace is secured in Darfur, and that China and other powers live up to their pledges in this regard, so that a Games boycott will be avoided. But, Cheek says, if the politicians don’t deliver, then the “athletes of the world will have to take a lead in that respect.”

The major advocacy groups around the Darfur issue are already recruiting high-profile Africans to mobilize ahead of a possible official call on the international community – including athletes and sponsors – for a full-scale global boycott.

Kenyan Olympian and marathon world-record holder, Tegla Lourope, recently testified before a special US Congress hearing called to debate the possibility of a boycott. She says Africans must support all measures designed to stop the human rights violations in Darfur. Lourope’s is a powerful voice on the issue, given her painful past.

“I want to inform you that I come from a conflict place, close to Uganda. I have witnessed when people are dying,” she told the US lawmakers. “We used to run away from school, and when I compare what’s going on with Sudan, I know what it means…. The Darfur crisis is a very painful issue for the people of the continent of Africa…. There are so many children, many boys and girls – many Olympians – are losing their lives.”

Anita Sharma, spokesperson for the Enough Campaign, is convinced that the potential for an international anti-Olympics campaign is “very real.”

“If three months, six months, eight months go by and still nothing has changed (in Darfur), I can imagine that you would see the activist community saying, Okay; enough is enough; the time has come to really put the pressure on the Chinese government, and then maybe stepping up the calls for the boycott. And that boycott could potentially be with (the cooperation of) athletes or with sponsors – such as Coca Cola, for example, who is going to be investing heavily in the games.”

Morrison, though, says his guess will be that there will be “hesitation” from most quarters to support a major international boycott.

“This is unlike the issue of the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan just prior to the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Here (with regard to Darfur) you’re talking about using a boycott as a means of pressure.”

In 1980, the US led a boycott by 64 countries of the Moscow Olympics in protest against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“The 1980 boycott was a reaction to a very dramatic, intimate and immediate action that Moscow took, and it had resonance around the world – not just in the US and some parts of Europe, which is where the activism around the Darfur issue is largely confined,” Morrison explains.

But Larry Rossin, a former US ambassador and presently a senior official with the Save Darfur Coalition, says “in some senses” the calls to boycott the Beijing Games have already become a separate campaign.

“Our organization is supportive of the campaign to link the Olympics and Darfur in a way to try to change Chinese government positions and behavior. But that movement is not controlled by our organization and is being pushed by other individuals. So I think it’s very likely that you’re going to see self-standing organizations on this theme, but they’ll continue to have a close relationship with ourselves and other elements of the global Darfur movement - because it really is one component of an effort on all fronts to try and bring relief to the people of Darfur and an end to their agony,” says Rossin.

Sudan’s ambassador to the US, Salah Elguneid, says the rally to boycott the Olympics because of Darfur is “mischievous,” and will not succeed.

“Boycotts, sanctions and all these things are not conducive to any dialogue or positive engagement with which we could reach agreements and concrete results. Dialogue…. is the only way that people can come to reach agreements. But boycotts and sanctions and all these things are not conducive to anything. And this is the (international) experience, that sanctions (or boycotts) have never solved any problem.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to requests for a response to the possibility of a boycott of the Beijing Games.

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