The column below originally appeared in the New Ledger.
If you are not safe, you cannot be free. The place within us that yearns for equality and independence also sustains us, inspires courageous and brave acts in defense of freedom.
For more than 20 years, Sudan has waded in and out of civil war. After seizing power in a brutal coup, Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir ruled with the same iron fist. He gave safe haven to Usama bin Laden. He instituted sharia law. Black African Dinka, and other pastoral tribes, found the lands they had roamed for centuries with their cattle hosting the government’s proxy militias who often exacted a price, sometime in blood, for traversing these same lands. Bashir partnered with China to exploit the oil rich Abyei, South Kordofan and Southern Sudan regions. Darfur was subjected to genocide–more than two million Darfuris died as millions more were displaced.
During the first term of President George W. Bush, the human rights community watched all of the above in horror. They pressed, successfully, for the President Bush to declare what was happening in Darfur genocide. Groups successfully pressured state governments, universities and private sector corporations to divest from Sudan. In 2005, enough pressure had been brought to force Bashir to negotiate peace. The Bush Administration took the lead, and Comprehensive Peace Agreement became a reality.
A vote for South Sudan to decide on independence was a cornerstone of that agreement. All this week, Sudanese people walk, ride bikes and make arduous treks to polling places. In the next 48 critical hours, the 60% needed to define the referendum a success will be achieved. Then it will be even more difficult. As tensions and fighting break out across the Abyei region and reports of violence in Darfur increase, the need for professional and thoughtful Statecraft becomes ever more urgent.
President Obama’s re-engagement in bringing peace to Sudan over the last 120 days or so has been welcome but anemic. He deployed several diplomats and staffers, like Special Envoy Gration, as well as US Senator John Kerry. National Security Council staff, like Samantha Power and Gayle Smith, have been remarkably absent from public discourse – with rare exceptions.
Ending genocide is not a partisan matter. Former President Bush understood this, he engaged with rights groups like Save Darfur and was personally engaged in taking responsibility – though he often shirked the credit for the policies he enacted with regard to Africa that evenVanity Fair’s Graydon Carter have lauded. One wonders how the current President, regaled as an intellectual giant would choose two of the most daft, politically impotent men inside the beltway to confront a genocidal tyrant. The human rights community has been very magnanimous towards Obama, perhaps because they share so many domestic policy views. Further, the inclusion of voices across the aisle has been muted.
Enter George Clooney, along with John Prendergast of the Enough Project. They recently launched the Satellite Sentinel Project. An unprecedented collaboration, according to a recent press release noting partnerships with Google, YouTube, MTV, and MTVu “marks the first sustained, public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hot-spots and threats to security along a border, in near real-time (within 24-36 hours), with the aim of heading off humanitarian disaster and human rights crimes before they occur.”
The anti-genocide paparazzi following Clooney are being subjected to nasty critiques. Some note he doesn’t speak Arabic–but neither do some of the Black Africans who are animists or Christians that are victims of their Islamic president who has demonstrated that their deaths please him. The Satellite Sentinel Project is being funded by Clooney’s organization, Not On Our Watch, which he co-founded with Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, David Pressman, and Jerry Weintraub. To those attacking Clooney’s policy credentials, gravitas defines John Prendergast and the Enough Project. When it comes to Africa, few have been as rational and inclusive as Prendergast. Prendergast served as Director for African Affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton era, has been in-country more times than anyone could count, with his personal story beginning in 1984. Clooney is wise to befriend a man with that portfolio of experience.
Perhaps what concerns some is the Satellite Sentinel project itself. If the project brings in high resolution images, infrared, or multi-spectre images, this is very different than other attempts in the past. If we have near-real time images, from Satellites and with corroborating evidence on the ground of human rights violations, governments will not be able to pretend the mass slaughter of Africans at the hand of an indicted genocidaire is not a possibility, or in process. They have combined innovation, passion and justice into a whole new animal. This isn’t your regular technology writ large. This isn’t just geeks and hippies from Silicon Valley. This is the privatization of Statecraft. This is next-generation diplomacy and peacekeeping. This is what Americans do when the government is so weighed down by bureaucracy that it’s no longer flexible or effective.
Clooney is the face of the Satellite Sentinel project. The cute name “anti-genocide paparazzi” says more about our nation’s obsession with celebrities than it does about Clooney turning the lens to something else. Is it really so unfathomable that Clooney is following his conscience? Leading? Or is it more likely that so many who have been toiling in the bureaucracy that usually comes with statecraft, foreign policy, legislation and politics in generals are just unsettled by the All-American entrepreneurial spirit manifesting itself in a new way.
This is what Americans are all about–creating solutions. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” And so it is with the Satellite Sentinel. A private citizen, global celebrity and a man who has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur and the horrific circumstances that pervade all of Sudan will, with the assistance of Prendergast, Google, YouTube and MTV, among others that will be announced in due course, make it all about the optics.
Join me on Facebook or Twitter!
Elizabeth Blackney is a media & communications strategist, political emissary, confidante and commentator. She is the Founder & Director of GeNoticed, an organization dedicated to helping Africa’s women and children find justice and freedom.