STEVEN SPIELBERG surely doesn’t favor the continuing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, but he still needs to explain himself.
The acclaimed film director has chosen to play a central, hands-on role in orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Besides Spielberg, China has enlisted other well-known artists such as director Ang Lee, Australian Ric Birch, and Frenchman Yves Pepin to add flash to the spectacle.
Oddly, Spielberg has declared publicly that while aware of genocide in Darfur, he only recently became aware of China’s involvement. But the facts are no secret. Beijing has unstintingly provided large-scale economic, military, and diplomatic support to the Islamist regime in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Spielberg has now sent a letter urging China to use its influence constructively. But that gesture is not enough.
What are the obligations of artists in the face of genocide? Spielberg and the others are at two removes from the ethnically targeted killing in Darfur; they are helping with the Olympics that China’s government cares so much about, and China is helping Khartoum. But how do we assess degrees of complicity in the ultimate human crime?
As a means to fight rebels, Khartoum has orchestrated a campaign of mass murder. Since the spring of 2003, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have perished, 2.5 million have been displaced, and 4.5 million civilians in the greater humanitarian theater of Darfur and eastern Chad are at risk.
The key to halting a brutal genocide by attrition in Darfur is securing Khartoum’s consent for the large, robust peace support operation authorized in August by the United Nations Security Council. But China, which obtains large quantities of oil from Sudan, abstained in this critical vote — and insisted on language that merely “invited” Khartoum’s consent for the deploying force. Assured of Beijing’s diplomatic support, Khartoum has defiantly declined this “invitation.” An overwhelmed African Union force remains the only source of security for millions of civilians and the world’s largest, most vulnerable humanitarian operation.
The only way to change conditions on the ground in Darfur is to break the diplomatic deadlock that emboldens Khartoum. China is the key. But its diplomacy has been governed by the principle of not interfering in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs — even when such affairs include the gravest of crimes.
This flies in the face of the emerging legal norm: a responsibility to protect civilians who are the unprotected victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. China voted for this principle at the UN World Summit in 2005, and again in a Security Council resolution in 2006. But China’s vast commercial interests in Sudan have rendered this principle meaningless.
Beijing’s foreign ministry did urge Khartoum last week to be more “flexible” in allowing UN forces to deploy. Then again, special envoy Zhai Jun recently toured Darfur and then declared that the region is stable, refugee camps have good sanitary conditions, aid groups were functioning normally, and the “situation is in fact improving.”
Beijing is paying no price for shielding Khartoum. By diplomatically underwriting Khartoum’s intransigence, China has become deeply culpable in the Darfur genocide.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics are the only lever the international community can use to change China’s ways. The event’s motto “one world, one dream” is a grim irony amid the nightmare of Darfur.
The question for Spielberg, then, is how much China’s culpability matters to him. How does he feel about his own complicity in a vast public relations effort by China? This is Beijing’s most ambitious attempt at full international legitimacy since the Tiananmen Square massacres (never mind the destruction of Tibet and domestic human rights abuses).
Artists are judged not just by the extent of their skill but also by how they choose to use it. In 1936 film maker Leni Riefenstahl decided filming the Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany was an appropriate artistic choice, and her creation — the film “Olympia” — was put in service of National Socialism’s propaganda efforts. Why would Spielberg or others want to contribute to Beijing’s propaganda — especially when it helps Khartoum?
Spielberg has declared publicly that, “all of us are dedicated to making these Olympic opening and closing ceremonies the most emotional anyone has ever seen.” But history will harshly judge those who had the ability to stop the Darfur genocide and failed to use it.
[Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College]
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
[for a picture of Steven Spielberg accepting a “certificate of appointment” as artistic director for the 2008 Games, from Beijing’s Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng, see China’s official Olympic website at http://en.beijing2008.cn/43/36/article212013643.shtml]
[See also http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article185.html]
Steven Spielberg may be contacted at:
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