Issue April 1, 2008

An untenable situation: Local and state efforts target genocide in Darfur

At nearly the same moment the United States declared war on Iraq, a rebellion in the Darfur region of Sudan sparked a war that has become a massive humanitarian crisis, seemingly without end. The war’s causes are multifaceted, ranging from environmental to political to religious issues, but the results — a death toll estimated as high as 400,000 and violence that has followed thousand of refugees over borders into neighboring countries — call for a swift and focused resolution.

That’s not something it appears the world will see anytime soon. A year after officially characterizing the situation as genocide, the United States spent last week negotiating immunity from prosecution for U.S. soldiers who operate in Sudan as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. Never mind that reports as recent as last week said that the Sudanese government is blocking United Nations and African Union peacekeeping troops from deploying to the country, that the forces are deemed by many to be insufficient, and that even the peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno has said “there is no peace to keep.”

Still, despite a series of missteps and false starts at the highest levels of government, grassroots efforts to ameliorate the situation continue in earnest worldwide, including here in Louisville. The last year and a half brought a couple of eclectic events focused on Darfur: a screening of Louisville filmmaker Andrew Thuita’s “Escape from Darfur,” which tells the stories of Sudanese refugees in Louisville; and attorney and art collector Paul Paletti’s exhibit of stunning images from war photographer James Nachtwey’s time in Darfur.

Such events spawned the creation of the Kentuckiana Interfaith Taskforce on Darfur, which tries to connect disparate efforts in the area. Founder Bob Brosseau said he noticed the community was becoming increasingly active, but with small, scattered events and individual efforts that might not have the impact of the more concerted ones.

“I’ve seen a lot of increased awareness. I’ve also seen a little bit of resignation set in too because this is going into its sixth year now,” he said. But the ratcheting up of violence in Sudan — and also Somalia earlier this year — has brought a renewed sense of urgency.

The group will sponsor an event April 13 at Bellarmine University, a combination of an interfaith prayer service and a New Albany High School live music fundraiser, that will feature Sudanese speakers and musicians of various genres, as well as video presentations. Donations will be accepted for Darfur awareness and relief programs, but Brosseau said fundraising is not his focus.

“It’s very much an easygoing thing,” he said. “More about awareness than anything.”

Brousseau said he hopes these activities drive people to pressure leaders to affect meaningful change in Sudan. One such opportunity is a divestment bill that appears to be withering in the state Senate during the countdown to the end of the legislative session. The bill would encourage businesses and government to stop dealing with major players in the Darfur conflict. Even though there appears to be little opposition to the nonbinding resolution, now in its second run through the legislature, there isn’t much support either.

Max Croes, advocacy associate at the national Darfur Divestment Taskforce, said he wished the bill “had more teeth to it.” Kentucky Reps. Tom Ringer, Reginald Meeks and Darrell Owens of Louisville have pushed to make the resolution binding. So far, 24 states have adopted divestment policies.

The most known example of such a large-scale divestment campaign is the one in the mid-1980s — led by the United States — that helped end apartheid in South Africa, but Croes hesitated to compare the situations. He stressed that the Darfur divestment campaign targets only a few specific companies whom organizers feel could have a great impact on the situation. Corporations like PetrolChina and Sinopac contribute to oil, mineral extraction, military supply and power supply: Croes said about 70 percent of oil revenues go directly to military expenditures, and 90 percent of export revenues go to the oil industry.

Corporations like Rolls Royce have divested or changed their policies in Sudan recently, as have large religious organizations, including the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church USA. The federal Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, which passed unanimously last year, authorizes and encourages states to divest.

The Divestment Taskforce looks to a few different indicators to gauge the success of divestment efforts, especially the response from the Chinese government. China, Sudan’s major trading partner, has been accused of failing to use its leverage to alleviate the situation. Until recently, China maintained that the problems in Sudan were domestic issues, nothing with which China should be concerned. “Over time, as this campaign has gone on, the Chinese government has changed their policies and changed their outlook,” said Croes. “Five years ago if you had asked them to point out Sudan on a map, they would have given you a quizzical look.”

The same could probably be said of many Kentuckiana residents, although others working from here to end the conflict are doing all they can to change that.

Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com