George Clooney and the potential of celebrity power to avert civil war in Sudan
Journalists tend to roll their eyes when a Hollywood star arrives in a refugee camp, calling for action. But when celebrities bring global attention to a distant and confusing conflict, and when they call for sensible diplomatic action, their star power may actually do some good.
Johannesburg, South Africa
So, I got an email from George Clooney this week. Yes, that George Clooney. He wanted my help to prevent the outbreak of civil war in Sudan. It seems Mr. Clooney was busy this week. Many of my friends – all foreign correspondents – got the same email. My wife had the email laminated, nevertheless.Skip to next paragraph
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It’s easy to dismiss celebrities who get involved in political activism. I actually admire Clooney for his obvious dedication to this cause, and for his willingness to travel long distances for the pleasure of swatting mosquitoes in some dusty African refugee camp. If Clooney can use his star power to focus the world’s attention, for at least a moment, on a faraway humanitarian catastrophe, then he deserves admiration.
Imagine if Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart had taken a documentary film crew to Hitler’s Germany in the late-1930s and confronted us with the truth about the roundup of Jews, Gypsies, gays, and others. Perhaps it would have created an upswell in citizen activism that would have demanded the US to take action. Perhaps some innocent lives could be saved.
“We have a brief window of opportunity to do something that has rarely been done: stop a war before it starts,” read the e-mail from Clooney and John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project, an antigenocide lobby group. “But if the international community is too hesitant or too late in its efforts – as was the case in Darfur – hundreds of thousands could die.”
Few question that the problem highlighted by Clooney and Mr. Prendergast is a serious one.
In January, Southern Sudan will hold a referendum in which its citizens are likely to vote for independence from the regime in Khartoum, which is led by President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide during the ongoing Darfur conflict. Khartoum has recently issued statements that it would not accept any outcome other than unity.
With rich oil fields to fight over and memories of a devastating 20-year civil war still fresh on Sudanese minds, this has all the potential to become Africa’s biggest conflict.
And yet, it's not enough to call for urgent action. The big question is what kind of action would create the desired effect.
In 2007, Mia Farrow lobbied hard for US corporations to boycott what she called China’s “Genocide Olympics,” because of China’s business relations with a Khartoum regime that was carrying on a war in Darfur. Mrs. Farrow acknowledged that Beijing seemed “impervious to criticism,” but added, “Imagine if such calls were to succeed in pushing the Chinese government to use its leverage over Sudan to protect civilians in Darfur.”