On Our Watch

The Citizen Activism Phenomenon

When U.N and world leaders were proving unable to the slaughter in Darfur, ordinary citizens around the world stepped in and made a difference.

Samantha Power
Author, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

photo of Power

There is a movement in the United States now that is unprecedented historically. … It's very hard to put a number on it, but the Save Darfur movement has raised tens of millions of dollars, which pays for humanitarian aid, pays for ads in The New York Times, pays for rallies on the [National] Mall. The largest anti-genocide rally in history … occurred in May of 2006 and their estimates range from 70,000 to 90,000 people gathered on the mall in Washington, next to Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson.

That doesn't sound like a very high number, but if you ask yourself, "How many of those 70,000 people had ever met anybody from Darfur?" the answer would probably be, I don't know, 100, maybe 1,000. It was people who were gathering to demand action about something that had nothing to do with them, nothing at all to do with them, other than that they were citizens of the earth and perhaps they felt some guilt over Rwanda, they had seen Hotel Rwanda, they had taken the lesson of the 20th century to heart. …

We have never had a foreign case of atrocity that has generated a divestment movement of this scale -- 19 states have now divested their portfolios of stocks belonging to companies doing business in Sudan. Never had this many phone calls [been] made to members of Congress, to the president and so forth.

[We] never had students on college campuses seeing themselves as trendy and that the popular thing to do is to wear a Save Darfur pin. The closest analogue is the anti-apartheid movement, but that took arguably 15, 20 years to really pick up speed and it didn't have quite the same directed focus. And of course, in that instance, the United States was very, very directly implicated by supporting the apartheid regime.

In this instance, the United States doesn't have extensive economic dealings with Sudan. It doesn't have any economic dealings with Sudan because of economic sanctions, and yet what the movement is crying out for is … to get into Sudan in some fashion, not necessarily militarily, but to get in diplomatically, to get in politically, and to get in in the form of a protection force that the United States funds and probably moves there. …

One of the things that's really important to reinforce is that almost nothing that has come out of the Bush administration would have come out of the Bush administration if not for the movement. So nearly $2 billion of humanitarian aid to fund the camps. This is an administration that detests the International Criminal Court and yet, the atrocities carried out in Darfur were referred to the ICC for prosecution. That's something that never would have happened without the political pressure. The move toward putting a force of 20,000 to 25,000 U.N. and African Union peacekeepers in there -- the United States is the only country taking any leadership on that question in the Security Council. …

I think policymakers see themselves as people who would respond a certain way in the face of genocide. And again and again, the exigencies and the constraints of the office and the risks of political life override those moral commitments. And the only way that those moral commitments will summon them -- which I do think is doable, and we've seen it happen in Darfur and we saw it happen with regard to the former Yugoslavia -- is when the political climate changes and they get a reminder of the people they were before they came into office. …

Often those signals have to be sent by editorial writers, by television reporters, by citizens who pick up the telephone. … I think this movement has communicated that for future leaders. In virtually every debate that has occurred in the Democratic and the Republican party primary circles, questions about Darfur have been asked. That has never been the case in the past where, as a candidate, you have to figure out what your position is on a genocide in order to win votes.

Alex de Waal
Co-author, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War

I think the advocacy movement has been extraordinarily effective [at] getting the issue of Darfur to have a high public profile and getting the world to take notice. ... Has that translated into real progress on the ground in Darfur? Well, certainly there are some very tangible things that have happened. It's helped the funding for humanitarian agencies. It's meant that there's been a referral to the International Criminal Court.

It hasn't helped the political process much, and in fact it may have contributed to some perverse incentives. It may have contributed to the intransigence of some of the rebel leaders who refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement, thinking that they would get a better deal because the activists would, for example, deliver on U.N. troops.

I was there in the very final session of the Darfur peace talks in Abuja, [Nigeria,] and Abdel Wahid al-Nur, [the leader of a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army], refused to sign. He wanted a military intervention like Bosnia, and he didn't get it, and his failure to get that assurance and his belief that he could get that assurance contributed to his refusal to sign and to the ongoing crisis. …

And I think the activists need to recognize that they're not going to get an ideal solution, but they need to get a workable solution, and a real peace process had to be at the heart of that.

The real challenge for the Save Darfur groups is how they translate their particular focus on Darfur into other issues. If this is to be a permanent anti-genocide constituency, which could be the real, positive, lasting legacy of this, how are they to move beyond the slogans that they have and the focus on peacekeepers, which I think is a bit misleading?

The focus really ought to be on peace first, peacekeepers second. How do they translate it to other places, to other looming crises like other parts of Sudan, like South Kordofan, like Upper Nile, where the crises could be looming in the next year or two, and still maintain the membership and the momentum of this campaign? That's a very, very difficult thing to do.

James Traub
The New York Times

Samantha Power describes it as the largest anti-genocide sort of movement we've seen. What impact has that had, do you think, on the U.S. and others?

Well, the largest anti-genocide movement we've seen is not necessarily the most powerful descriptor possible, because we haven't seen very many other public mass anti-genocide movements. I mean, whether it was in Biafra 35 years ago, or against the Khmer Rouge or in the Balkans or elsewhere.

I think that while it may have had some impact on the Bush administration, it's pretty marginal. I think much more the question is, how do you have an effect on China? China is the key actor. And public demonstrations of dislike for Chinese policy don't have much impact on China. They don't really care what the American public or British or Canadian or any other public thinks. Doesn't mean they're unreachable. It's just that that's not an instrument that's particularly powerful with them.

Do you think the "Genocide Olympics" campaign has had an impact?

Yes, I do. I mean, it's hard to know for sure. But the fact is, I think it was not long after Steven Spielberg said that he would not work on the Olympic festivities because of Darfur that the Chinese send a high level diplomatic delegation to Khartoum. And they wanted to make it clear that they were putting pressure on the regime, something they had never really done before. So that was quite a remarkable display of Chinese sensitivity.

So they seem vulnerable on the Olympics.

One doesn't know how much. I think there's a real danger with trying to push the Chinese too hard. There's a fierce backbone of nationalism in China. If they feel their vital interests are being threatened by this kind of moral movement, it is as likely to have a bad effect as a good one. So, clearly, in the Olympics, the Darfur movement has really found the point of sensitivity that is worth being pushed on. How far that can be pushed on, I don't know, but it's certainly worth the effort.

Update: On Feb. 12, 2008, filmmaker Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics. Activists had pressured him to resign over China's economic and diplomatic support of the Sudanese government. "At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies, but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur," Spielberg said in a statement.

Eric Reeves
Darfur activist

photo of Reeves

In the case of Darfur, no one has done more than the American advocacy community -- not the U.K., not Ireland, not Canada, not continental Europe for sure. …

But tensions in that movement are growing, and they're growing in part out of frustration, out of a lack of an ability to effect change. What do we do? We've written to every congressman. Congress is on record as saying, in the strongest possible terms, how much they deplore the genocide, how much they wish the Bush administration to do more. But the Bush administration refuses to commit, refuses to view Darfur as more than a problem to be managed rather than a crisis to be addressed. …

[How do you view the advocacy movement in the U.S.?]

This is my ninth work year of full-time work on Sudan. One of the great frustrations was that I could never make the case for southern Sudan and advocacy around deeply irresponsible oil development. …

In Darfur, it's been entirely different. And I think what we've seen is a number of things. Jewish constituencies have been involved because it's so recognizably genocide. One of the great fears of people in the midst of genocide, certainly Jews during the Holocaust, was the fear of abandonment. Jews know that fear and they know that the people of Darfur feel that they have been abandoned. Where is the international community? Can it be that they don't know? And if they do know, why aren't they here? Why aren't we being protected? If you see signs being held up by people in Darfur, they will say, "Give us security." They're desperate for security and yet it doesn't come and they're incomprehending. …

Students have also become engaged in ways that I never saw in the advocacy years working on southern Sudan. … I think this has a lot to do with a sense, by students, that a Rwanda will not occur on their watch. At the time of Rwanda, now 13 years ago, they were around 10 years old or younger. This was not on their watch. But Darfur is different. Darfur is unfolding before their very eyes and they see it and they respond to it and they know what it is and they see the inaction and it makes them even more passionate. …

And everywhere I travel -- and I lecture widely -- adults as well, regardless of religious or political affiliation or non-affiliation, are deeply, deeply moved by the story of Darfur. I get more e-mails asking how to offer help, how to be part of the movement, than I can keep up with.

Mia Farrow
Darfur activist

photo of Farrow

As individuals, what can we do?

… On a local level, we in America need to contact our leadership. We have voting coming up, so it's really important for us who you vote for and what they plan to do about Darfur, our congresspersons, our senators, our local leadership.

Even my child had a dance for Darfur and raised $7,000 to give to Save the Children. We must in the meantime sustain our humanitarian operations. UNICEF, for example, has only 20 percent of what it needs to continue. We don't know how we're going to go on past June [2007]. So all humanitarian agencies that are working there, that are doing a good job there, are deserving of our support in the meantime.

And then look, make sure your investments are clean. I found out in just November that my pension plan … was with Fidelity mutual funds, a mutual fund company that has immense holdings in PetroChina, one of these two massive oil companies that is underwriting the genocide in Darfur. Well I withdrew my money within five minutes and wrote my letter of conscience. And then I called them and said, "Do you understand what's happening here?" And they said, "Send us the information," and I did. When nothing happened I wrote another op-ed. …

We can write to them; we can make sure our own money, even if it's $20, make sure it isn't killing anyone. We can do that privately, make sure our cities, our states, our universities, make sure we're not helping to finance a genocide.

We just have to get louder to produce the political will, get those full-time envoys in, the end goal being the peacekeeping force and peace to Darfur.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo
Chief prosecutor, International Criminal Court

photo of Moreno-Ocampo

What is the importance of individuals taking action?

It's very interesting because what I see are different activities [which] at the end are producing results. For instance, when I took office, the idea to have a Security Council referral [to the International Criminal Court] was impossible …

But because of the activism of people in different countries, no one vetoes [the] Security Council resolution, and then the case was referred to us. And that's a good example of how people can mobilize institutions. It's a combination: Mobilize national actors and international actors both. It's complicated, yes, but people can do it.

You're presenting a picture that this is actually quite a historical case that you're engaged in.

It's historical. The Darfur case is historical because of the magnitude, because of the crimes, but also because it's the first time the peace and security system is connected with the justice system. And we have to prevail. We'll take a little time, but we'll prevail.

Do you think that could change the way we deal with these things in the future?

I feel as people are starting to learn that there is no more impunity for these type of crimes. It's not any more the model. You cannot die in a beautiful house when you commit massive crimes. You will die in jail.

Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem
Sudanese ambassador to the U.N.

What has been your opinion of the activists … [who] have been campaigning on Darfur?

In fact, most of them are misinformed about it. We don't question their humanitarian consideration and that they are seriously concerned about the suffering of the people; we would not dispute that. But the engine that is feeding them with information is also inflating a lot of very sensational information about Sudan.

For Sudan and the U.S., I think the issue also has entered the domestic arena of elections and the rivalry between Democrats and Republicans, and even the last decision on the sanction of Sudan was also a deal between them: "Help us on Iraq for the bill, we make sanctions against Sudan." That issue was there, and it is a fact.

So while we have great respect for the great American people, I think the media misinformed the public, including the celebrities. I spoke with many of them; I told them, you are great in supporting the humanitarian suffering of our people, but you have to understand the complex nature of the problems like Darfur. It is not a problem of people killing each other; it's not like that. It's a very complex issue, and as time goes, we are discovering more serious factors and reasons behind why the situation emerged like that or came to its current status. …

So our task is not only to establish peace and stability in our own country, but also to convince the larger people here in the United States of our intentions, of our concern, of our being human beings as well.

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posted november 20, 2007

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