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Obama to General Assembly:  Work for Peace in Sudan

U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for a new era of engagement among nations yesterday at the U.N. General Assembly had wide implications for several world trouble spots. His case that it is time for all countries to take their share of responsibility pointed out that the United States cannot solve global problems alone. He called for a new era of engagement among nations to address violence and work for peace, in Haiti, East Timor, the Middle East, Congo, and Sudan.

Senior program officer Lawrence Woocher of the U.S. Institute for Peace Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention organized a discussion this week in Washington on mobilizing the will to intervene and taking leadership and action to prevent mass atrocities. He says that Washington’s message for Sudan is meant to reflect a growing body of Americans who are mobilized to work for peace in Darfur and find a satisfactory solution for southern Sudan.

“I think that it’s notable that we heard President Obama today in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly specifically refer to his efforts to bring peace to Darfur and sustainable peace in southern Sudan at large, which I think indicates that it is a real policy priority and that they’ve heard the advocacy groups who have been really pressing to take the opportunity of the speech at the General Assembly to say something about Sudan,” he said.

The 2008 Obama presidential campaign pledged resolute commitment to end the strife in Darfur. But citizen groups across the United States continue actively pressing the White House to strengthen sanctions against Khartoum over the genocidal conditions that Washington acknowledged four years ago were occurring in Darfur.

Some activists say the Obama administration policy has become muddled by attempts to play down the extent of the violence and overly focused on reaching an accommodation with Khartoum to help cement a shaky peace agreement for southern Sudan. Woocher says citizens are devising many ways of reaching leaders to press demands for stronger political action on what they regard as serious foreign policy issues of conscience.

“I think the way for the public at large to communicate with their leaders starts with the traditional ways of knocking on doors, writing letters, and mobilizing groups of citizens, whether they be religious groups or other types of citizen organizations and make their voices heard very directly with their representatives and policymakers,” he said.

Other modern-day tools being used include the internet, new media, and several collaborative techniques. Woocher says this week’s street protests outside U.N. headquarters and in Pittsburgh, where G20 leaders are holding their semiannual meeting on Thursday and Friday can also make an impact, “although currently the problem may or may not be a lack of attention on Sudan, but the problems there are quite difficult, even if you had a fully focused team of policy officials trying to resolve it.”

Woocher cites a minimal public awareness of international news from U.S. domestic media Americans’ strong focus on local and economic problems at home as discouraging even wider attention to remote trouble spots like Rwanda and Sudan, where genocide has devastatingly gone unchecked. He does not see President Obama’s contention that America alone cannot solve the world’s problems as an excuse to relinquish U.S. global responsibilities. Rather, he says it is a challenge for other countries to help.

“Preventing genocide is not an American responsibility alone. Nor could America succeed by itself if it set out to do that. We certainly have to work with others within the international community, ideally in partnership. And even in the best circumstances, there may be episodes that we fail to foresee and cannot prevent,” he maintains.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 to one million people lost their lives went largely ignored by US foreign policymakers until it was too late to stop the killings and massacres. Although hopes to avert future genocides depend on public vigilance, the U.S. Institute for Peace’s Lawrence Woocher points out that paying attention to world warning signs could sprout a whole new generation of moral activists determined not to let mass murders far away or close to home go unchecked.