Activists Frustrated with Lack of Focus on Darfur Crisis

Celebrities, lawmakers launch 'fasting chain' to highlight suffering

May 21, 2009, 6:40 PM

May 24, 2009 — -- Months after 13 aid groups were expelled from Darfur by the Sudanese government, escalating a years-long humanitarian crisis there, celebrity activists and lawmakers have engaged in fasts of solidarity, been arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington, and protested in front of the White House.

And despite a statement by the White House condemning the expulsion of the aid groups, activists are increasingly frustrated with the White House and President Obama for their perceived lack of concrete action on the issue.

On Friday, a small group of Sudanese immigrants gathered in front of the White House to express their disappointment in Obama for not being active enough on Darfur from the outset of his presidency.

"I voted for him," said protestor William Deng, of the Southern Sudan Project. "And I did it because I knew he was going to do something about Darfur. But now he's silent, he's never done anything. And I feel, I regret that he doesn't do anything about our issues."

Scrutiny of Obama's reaction to the crisis in Darfur will intensify as he prepares for his first trip to Africa as president, a two-day visit to Ghana in July.

A "fasting chain" begun by the actress Mia Farrow and taken up by billionaire Richard Branson, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others has brought more attention to the issue of Darfur in recent months. Farrow's fast, which she quit for medical reasons, has sparked more followers online.

"Among President Obama's priorities, Darfur has to take its place," Farrow told reporters on Capitol Hill this week.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who have called for more action by the U.S. government on Darfur, have not yet expressed frustration with the White House, but several were arrested in a protest outside the Sudanese embassy in April.

Some have followed Farrow's lead with their own fasts of varying lengths and have asked President Obama for a meeting on Darfur.

In the Senate, Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., complained in April that a State Department report overstated Sudan's cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism.

"I take serious issue with the way the report overstates the level of cooperation in our counterterrorism relationship with Sudan, a nation which the U.S. classifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. A more accurate assessment is important not only for effectively countering terrorism in the region, but as part of a review of our overall policy toward Sudan, including U.S. pressure to address the ongoing crisis in Darfur and maintain the fragile peace between the North and the South," said Feingold at the time.

"There are two issues," said Alex Meixner, the policy director for Save Darfur, a coalition of aid groups.

"There is a growing urgency to address the situation," he said, explaining that because of the expulsion of the aid groups, and because the rainy season in Darfur washes out the roads there for much of the summer, the humanitarian situation will get much more dire.

"And the second is some frustration that we're not seeing a lot of visible urgent response from the White House," said Meixner.

While he applauded some concessions -- the Obama administration has secured from Darfur to ease restrictions on the remaining aid groups -- Meixner expressed some skepticism that the Sudanese government will follow through with their promises.

"Long history has proven that the Sudanese government is quite willing to agree to anything but is slow to come through on their agreement if ever," he said. "If Sudan yet again promises one thing, and delivers nothing, that there is some consequence to that."

Meixner feels the administration has not done enough to build support in Africa and elsewhere for a more united front in the region against Sudan.

As a senator, President Obama visited camps housing Darfurian refugees in Chad, and during his campaign for the White House, Obama pledged to galvanize world attention on Darfur. But since taking office in January, his administration has yet to articulate a plan to do so.

In March President Obama tapped former Air Force General Scott Gration as his special envoy to Sudan, tasking him with resolving the Darfur conflict. Gration has traveled to Sudan twice since his appointment, most recently in early May, and he briefed President Obama on his first trip in April.

"Sudan is a priority for this administration, particularly at a time when it cries out for peace and for justice. The worsening humanitarian crisis there makes our task all the more urgent," President Obama said in a statement announcing Gration's appointment.

A State Department spokesman said today that Gration will leave this weekend for a whirlwind tour of countries, from China to Paris, Russia and elsewhere, to build support for "aligning the Darfur peace process effort under the UN African Union."

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