Timing is everything in the Olympics — and in Darfur

Next week, people the world over will be riveted to the TV set as the spectacle of the Beijing Olympic Games unfolds and athletes go head to head in the competitions for gold medals.

Many of the races will come down to a matter of milliseconds. Finish-line results may be determined by momentum generated at the starting gate.

In other words, timing is everything.

The same thing could be said of the movement to stop the genocide in Darfur.

The Olympics is a time of celebration, human achievement, civility and a respite from the violence and chaos that fills our daily news. The Olympics are steeped in history, and the torch provides a symbol of hope for all of humanity. Like many people, I eagerly await the excitement of the Olympic Games.

However, I also live with the images of the many people I have met in Darfur and Chad who have seen their communities and lives torn apart. These vulnerable, precious human beings also yearn for the world’s attention. They are not anticipating medals; they simply want to know that the world cares and that we have the resolve to act.

A few months ago, southwest China was rocked by a massive 7.9 earthquake that left nearly 70,000 people dead. As China struggled with the enormous human and economic toll, the world responded with an outpouring of sympathy and relief. Many human rights advocates, including many Jewish organizations that had been aggressively pressuring China to take a more principled position on Darfur, temporarily suspended their efforts.

That was then. This is now.

With the Olympic Games fast approaching, it’s time for advocates to gear up once again and urge the Chinese government to act responsibly. The stakes are simply too high to hold back any longer.

A web of economic, military and diplomatic ties binds China to the Sudanese government’s systematic program of terror, rape and murder in Darfur. Over the past decade, China has invested more than $10 billion in commercial and capital investments in Sudan. Today, China is Sudan’s biggest trading partner, importing about two-thirds of all Sudanese exports and providing one-fifth of Sudan’s imports.

It is also Sudan’s number one small arms dealer, accounting for 90 percent of the small weapons imported into the country since 2004. These are the same weapons used by Janjaweed terrorists and other rebel forces to slaughter thousands of people .

Given these interests, it’s not surprising that China has been Sudan’s staunch ally in matters of diplomacy, steadfastly opposing sanctions proposed by the U.N. Security Council and other resolutions aimed at holding the Sudanese government accountable for the genocide of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more.

Since the May 12 Chinese earthquake, the situation has only grown more dire.

For example, in mid-May, an estimated 50,000 people were forced to leave their homes in Abyei, a border region between north and south Sudan after fighting broke out between Sudanese government forces and south Sudan ex-rebel forces.

U.N. officials have warned of a major food crisis in the region, the result of a perfect storm of mounting violence, poor harvests and overcrowding in refugee camps. Since May, cereals, sugar and other essential rations have been reduced by half. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being threatened by the lack of food and disease. Each and every day, including the Olympic days, more and more human beings in Darfur and Chad will be affected by this growing regional crisis.

On July 14, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir, charging him with several counts of genocide and many other war crimes. This is the first time the ICC prosecutor has prepared a case against a sitting head of state.

On July 8, a peacekeeping patrol in north Darfur state was ambushed. Seven African Union-U.N. peacekeepers were killed and several were wounded. These reasons and more are why advocates must turn up the heat on China. We are urging the Chinese government to do the following:

  • Publicly condemn the violence in Darfur. China’s silence on this issue has been deafening. Taking a hard-line position against the continuing genocide is an important first step.
  • Agree to end the sale of all small arms to Sudan. China sells small arms to Sudan with full knowledge that Khartoum continues to violate a U.N. arms embargo prohibiting the transfer of weapons into Darfur.
  • Call on Sudan to stop the genocide and comply with all existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. This includes pushing for the rapid deployment of African Union-U.N. Mission in Darfur forces to Darfur. Currently only 10,000 of the approved 26,000 are on the ground. Without their presence, the Janjaweed will continue to pillage the region.

China’s inaction to date is especially galling, given the theme of this year’s Olympics: “One World, One Dream.” According to the official Web site of the Beijing Olympics, the theme is meant to convey China’s commitment to “peaceful development, harmonious society and people’s happiness.” These words will ring hollow unless they are backed by real commitment on China’s part to end the violence in Darfur.

Now is the time to celebrate the achievements of the Olympic athletes; much more importantly, now is the time to celebrate the Jewish imperative to pursue justice in an active, passionate and strategic way. Our acts will make a difference; they are our legacy.

As the world’s leading athletes race for the gold this month, concerned citizens of the world — including many people of Jewish faith for whom Darfur has tragic, historical resonance — will be racing, too, to turn the Olympic spotlight on China’s track record in Darfur. The world will be watching. Timing is everything.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is American Jewish World Service Western Region executive director. Since 2004, he has made several trips to Darfur and Chad. To learn more about efforts to stop the Darfur genocide, visit www.ajws.org.