Scores of Olympic athletes from around the world have signed a letter urging the international community to invoke a truce in Sudan's troubled Darfur region during the upcoming Olympic games in Beijing. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where the initiative was unveiled Tuesday.
The concept of an Olympic truce goes back to ancient Greece, where athletes from rival city-states were given safe passage to and from the games. Today the idea has global implications, and has been affirmed through numerous UN General Assembly resolutions, the latest of which was introduced in 2007 by China, host of this year's summer games.
A coalition of activists demanding an end to bloodshed in Darfur, Sudan, says the truce must go from concept to reality. They want a 55-day ceasefire in Darfur that would allow aid workers and international peacekeepers to enter to region while diplomatic efforts continue in search of a lasting peace.
U.S. Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek is among 130 athletes who have signed a letter on Darfur addressed to the International Olympic Committee, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the leaders of all permanent members of the UN Security Council. Cheek, who won gold and silver medals at the 2006 games in Turin, Italy, spoke at a Washington news conference.
"The Olympic truce should be observed before, during and after the Olympics, as is traditionally the case, and it would give the international community a rare opportunity to take concrete steps towards protecting civilians in Darfur and throughout Sudan," he said. "I hope this will stand as an example for other movements, because I truly believe that what we are trying to do is in the best spirit of the Olympic games."
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, raped, or mutilated in Sudan's westernmost region at the hands of militias backed by the government in Khartoum. Anti-government rebels also contribute to the violence in the region. China is Sudan's biggest trading partner and its primary arms supplier. Darfur activists have targeted China for its dealings with Sudan, going so far as to label the 2008 games the "genocide Olympics." Beijing has said the characterization is unfair and inaccurate.
But activists counter that China has unique leverage and influence over Sudan that could be employed to bring violence in Darfur to an end. Jill Savitt, Director of Dream for Darfur, says this week's trip by UN Secretary General Ban to China in advance of the Olympics presents a perfect opportunity to rally support for an Olympic truce.
"We call on the secretary general and [Chinese] President Hu [Jintao] to stand together demanding the Olympic truce for Darfur," she said. "They can invite all of the UN Security Council members to join them. And this could be at long last the show of political will by the international community to stand up to Khartoum."
The Sudanese government has resisted demands for an expansion of international peacekeepers on its territory, and said that widespread reports of mass killings in Darfur are "exaggerated."