States, private citizens aid Darfur as US government idles

by Amy Kingsley

This past spring a pair of events involving people connected to Greensboro moved a humanitarian crisis happening halfway across the globe into the local spotlight.

First, Rep. Mel Watt, the Democrat whose district stretches from southeast Greensboro to Charlotte, led a congressional delegation to Sudan to survey the genocide in Darfur. Sudanese authorities imprisoned the politicians after they spoke out against government complicity in the deaths of more than 400,000 civilians in the western region of Darfur since 2003. Watt’s one-and-a-half hours behind bars made the national and local news.

About two weeks later the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce feted speed skater and Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek for both his athletic and humanitarian achievements. Cheek donated the proceeds from his gold and silver medals to an organization devoted to improving the lives of those displaced by the conflict in Darfur.

“Greensboro already has more background on this issue than I have found in Raleigh or Charlotte,” Watt said.

All of which explains why the politician scheduled a town hall meeting about Darfur for July 31 on the campus of NC A&T University. Watt intended to speak about Darfur for about 30 minutes and then open the floor to questions about all aspects of the federal government.

The crowd, however, had other plans. With the exception of a few questions about taxes and federal financial aid for students, participants in the meeting confined the discussion to US inactivity on Darfur and grassroots efforts to force change.

One such effort is the NC Sudan Divestment Campaign. Kerry Gorman, the leader of the campaign, and NC Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, presented legislation they intend to introduce during the 2007 session. Under its provisions, state investments in companies linked to the Sudanese government would be withdrawn and reinvested elsewhere. Watt, in his capacity as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been trying to achieve similar goals on the federal level.

“We are desperately trying to get a bill into the Senate that would do the same thing to Sudan that we did to South Africa: choke their economy,” Watt said.

North Carolina – which invests $2.25 billion of its retirement funds in companies linked to Sudan – would not be the first state to withdraw its assets from the beleaguered region. Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey and Oregon have already passed such measures. Nine others have pending legislation that would divest assets from Sudan.

“This is arguably the single most important thing that forced the apartheid government in South Africa to hold democratic elections,” Luebke said.

While support in the auditorium for divestment was strong, several people objected to what they perceived as inaction on the part of the US government. Watt noted that Bush has denounced the genocide, but the president has been reluctant to confront Sudanese officials because of their cooperation in the war on terror. A Sudanese immigrant expressed his frustration with the administration, which he accused of protecting known war criminals.

“These people that are giving them information are the ones responsible for the killing,” said Omer Omer. “The head of the seventeen people who are most responsible for this is protected by the US government.”

A small force of African Union peacekeepers is currently stationed in Darfur, but Watt said a UN force must move into the region to stop the bloodshed. He said he is not entirely dissatisfied with the administration’s stand on the issue, but said more action is needed. When asked why the US hasn’t pushed for a UN peacekeeping force, Watt offered this response:

“The US has pushed for a peacekeeping force,” he said. “It might be more appropriate to ask why they haven’t pushed more aggressively.”

Watt’s answers to the questions about taxes and domestic programs revealed a grim outlook. Tax cuts and the war in Iraq have weakened America’s economy and defenses, he said. Costs related to Iraq average $8 billion per month, and the conflict is one of the reasons the nation’s debt ceiling has been raised three times since President Bush took office in 2001, Watt said.

“There are political consequences for voting to raise taxes,” he said. “It’s just going to take an unbelievable amount of political guts to get us out of this predicament. It’s like turning a train around on a track. There are going to be difficult times ahead for this country.”

Despite the sober look at America’s future, the meeting ended with positive outlook for the efforts to help people in Darfur.

“There is a tremendous amount we can do as citizens,” Gorman said. “I think we’ve become habituated to problems is Africa, but we can make a difference. If you are upset with what is happening in Darfur, please help us because we can make a difference.”

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