A mob of women lined the Dirksen hallways on Wednesday hoping to catch a glimpse of actor George Clooney, who was visiting Capitol Hill to highlight the violence carried out by Sudan along the border with the nation that seceded from it last year.
Clooney, whose every move during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was echoed by snapping from photographers’ cameras, recently returned from a trip to the region, and he used his star power to call for immediate action in Washington.
“These are innocent men, women, and children. That is a fact,” Clooney said, describing his visit to the Nuba Mountains border region of Sudan which is riddled with violence, allegedly at the hands of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. During his time there, Clooney said several bombs dropped on a neighboring village. Children were hit by shrapnel; farmers took shelter in caves. “The signs … are ominously similar to what happened in Darfur, and that’s what brings us pause.”
Clooney, flanked by activist John Prendergast of the Enough Project, showed a video produced during their trip to the Nuba Mountains. He’s pictured standing next to wounded children and an unexploded bomb buried in the dirt. “This isn’t a war of retaliation [for secession from northern Sudan],” Clooney says in the video, referring to Bashir, who has warrants for his arrest from the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. A rebel fighter replies: “They want to destroy the blacks and put the Arabs in."
A slide runs over the screen: “How many more bodies until the Nuba Mountains become the next Darfur?”
“Why should we care?” Clooney said to the panel. Aside from humanitarian interest, he said, the increase in gas prices here is affected by the South’s cutoff of oil production. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., added that any major loss of supply affects all prices on the world market, “from the crude that Americans import to the gasoline that they put in their cars.”
Sens. Christopher Coons, D-Del., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., on Wednesday will introduce a resolution demanding Sudan allow “immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access” to the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions—before a quarter of a million people face emergency food shortages.
The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Nancy Lindborg said the situation in those areas appears “one step short of famine” because international humanitarian access has been blocked. If Sudan signs an agreement to allow aid, the U.S. is ready to immediately deliver food and humanitarian assistance, Lindborg said. But Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman warned that humanitarian assistance must arrive quickly--before the rains come this spring and render the roads untenable.
Some lawmakers appeared frustrated by the situation. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., asked if the U.S. is going to “basically talk about this for years and see hundreds of thousands of people’s lives ruined forever” as it did during the Darfur crisis. As for humanitarian aid, Cardin said, “we talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, [while] people are dying.”
With famine looming, Lugar urged a U.S.-led international response in conjunction with the Arab League and the African Union. “In particular, this means leveraging our diplomacy to press China, Sudan’s major oil customer, to live up to its responsibilities as an important world power.”
Noting the violence in Sudan is unlikely to spark calls for a NATO no-fly zone or military force, Clooney said Washington must “do what we’re best at: Real diplomacy.” This starts with China, said Clooney, who is slated to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday. The U.S. should use China’s $20 billion investment in oil infrastructure in Sudan for leverage with Beijing because “guilting people often doesn’t work,” he said. Clooney also wants the U.S. to freeze the offshore bank accounts of Sudanese leaders he called war criminals.
In the House, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., have introduced legislation to create broad-reaching sanctions to target any government or people who provide military equipment or significant support to Khartoum, among other things.
Clooney noted that Bashir’s home is surrounded by five tanks pointing outward. “That’s not a very secure leader,” he said. “The more you expose his corruption, the more inclined the people in Khartoum would be, perhaps, to have someone else lead their country."
Clooney and Prendergast are cofounders of the Satellite Sentinel Project, a satellite-imagery analysis initiative monitoring violence in the region. The project is designed to help deter war crimes before they happen. Because it can detect when soldiers are massing in a particular area or air assets are being moved into position, Prendergast said, “at least we have the visual evidence, empirical evidence, to present to the International Criminal Court … for hopeful prosecution.”
Despite the serious subject matter, Clooney's celebrity was on full display--even for the senators who were well aware the lines outside the hearing room weren’t intended for their entrance. “That long line that began forming ... wasn’t to see Johnny Isakson,” Isakson said. Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., tried to comfort him. “Don’t sell yourself short,” he joked. “I heard people out there saying: You seen Johnny Isakson?”