Friday, December 22, 2006

Reflections on the Darfur student activism conference at Swarthmore (Adam Lebor)

The British journalist Adam LeBor (recently author of "Complicity with Evil": The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide) was one of the non-students invited to participate in panels and workshops at the student-run Darfur activism conference at Swarthmore (December 1-3, 2006).

(Others included Eric Reeves, Darfurian exile Mohamed Yahya of the Damanga Coalition, photo-journalist Ryan Spencer Reed, UNICEF spokesperson and Darfur activist Mia Farrow, and yours truly.)

This was the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition., a national umbrella organization of student groups working to end the genocidal mass murder in Darfur. There were also representatives from an affiliated organization of students and recent students, the Genocide Intervention Network, that was originally started at Swarthmore By my rough estimate, there seemed to somewhat over 100 activists participating in the conference. Some were Swarthmore students, and others came from the immediate area (including Philadelphia-area high school students), but the majority were representatives from STAND chapters at other colleges and universities ranging from New Jersey through Virginia--which meant that they represented a larger constituency of Darfur-oriented student activism.

After returning home to Europe, LeBor posted some reflections on the Swarthmore conference (see below). His remarks perfectly capture my own impressions.
Despite the grim subject matter, it was a fascinating, and encouraging couple of days. These kids were all in their late teens and early twenties, black, white and Asian. (None were from Jewish organisations - so much for the claims that Darfur is all a trick by the Zionist lobby to distract attention from Israel/Palestine.) Their level of commitment and knowledge was remarkable. They spoke fluently of congressional instruments, UN resolutions, the shortcomings of the African Union peacekeepers, splits in the Security Council and the role of China. They were up to speed on different lobbying and public awareness techniques. And they were angry about the world's feeble response to the slaughter.

They had all sorts of plans to increase the pressure on the Sudanese government, by focusing on their local legislators, the Bush administration, even the Beijing Olympics. Such conferences do have an effect, keeping Darfur in the public eye in the US and helping catalyse the Bush administration's sporadic - sadly only sporadic - attempts to pressurise Khartoum.
Despite everything, I also found the conference encouraging for the reasons LeBor emphasizes. The energy, commitment, and sophistication of the participants was impressive. The dominant spirit was one of serious practical idealism rather than ideological venting, moral self-congratulation, or hopeless hand-wringing. I confess that I couldn't help being reminded of the early days of the student civil rights movement (for which, as it happens, Swarthmore was one epicenter). I took it as a heartening sign that capacities for active citizenship and democratic collective action still have some real vitality in American political culture.

=> Of course, one of the most encouraging facts about student activism to stop the Darfur genocide is simply that it's a live phenomenon--at least, in the US. So far, unfortunately, there has been appallingly little active public concern about the Darfur atrocity in most of the rest of the world, and the absence of public outrage and pressure for action from European public opinion has been especially devastating in its consequences. LeBor concludes his remarks with a rueful observation:
But all through the weekend of the student activists' debates and discussions and workshops one question kept nagging at me: where are their British equivalents?
Good question. And to make matters even worse, the sad fact is that there has been significantly more public attention to the Darfur catastrophe in Britain than in the rest of Europe (including fairly extensive and often high-quality coverage by the BBC and the British press). As I noted recently myself (in connection with Eric Reeves's urgent reminder that Europe's indifference is helping to doom Darfur):
What makes European indifference to Darfur so tragic and appalling is that action by Europe could make a genuine difference, and Europe's failure to act has been catastrophic. Overall, Europe has the capacity to exert considerably more economic, diplomatic, and political leverage over the Khartoum government and its foreign backers (including those with seats on the UN Security Council, like China and Russia) than the US. [....] And to put it the other way around, it is almost certainly the case that no serious measures to stop the ongoing mass murder in Darfur and to help the victims can be successful without the active support and initiative of western European governments (in cooperation with the US)..

But none of these governments will feel inclined to pay serious attention to Darfur, and especially not to take even the slightest political or diplomatic risks in connection with Darfur, unless they feel some pressure to do so from their own publics. Therefore, the pervasive failure of western European public opinion (with rare exceptions) to become aroused about the Darfur atrocity--even to the extent of public opinion in the US--and to put pressure on European governments to take constructive steps has been absolutely devastating. Changing this situation is crucial.
This European failure was emphasized as far back as 2004 by former US Presidential candidate Howard Dean in a powerful, eloquent, but evidently ineffective appeal that Europe should act on Darfur. Samantha Power (author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide) made the same point in a piece she wrote in the spring of 2006 after the "Save Darfur" rally in Washington DC (quoted here). Having offered some sharp criticisms of US government policies, Power ended by re-emphasizing this even more depressing wider perspective.
But, at this juncture, U.S. pressure is not sufficient to do the job, and other countries must be brought around. And, for that to happen, the burgeoning endangered people's movement must spread beyond U.S. shores.
Walking away from the [Save Darfur] rally in Washington, a British friend of mine shook his head and said, "You'll never hear me say this again, but today made me want my kids to grow up American." When I asked why, he said, "What happened today could never, ever happen in Europe." Europeans fond of denouncing both the Rwandan genocide and American imperialism had better prove him wrong.
I'll second that.

=> Meanwhile, let me pass along a practical suggestion offered by Eric Reeves at the Swarthmore conference. Anyone who wants to contribute money to support ongoing efforts against the Darfur genocide can probably get the best bang for their buck by assisting the Genocide Intervention Network, the Sudan Divestment Task Force, or STAND (or all three).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub
====================
Adam LeBor (at Harry's Place)
December 12, 2006
Silence on Darfur


I just got back from the United States, where I spent a weekend at Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, at a conference of student activists working to stop the genocide in Darfur.

http://www.swarthmore.edu/x8168.xml

Despite the grim subject matter, it was a fascinating, and encouraging couple of days. These kids were all in their late teens and early twenties, black, white and Asian. (None were from Jewish organisations - so much for the claims that Darfur is all a trick by the Zionist lobby to distract attention from Israel/Palestine.) Their level of commitment and knowledge was remarkable. They spoke fluently of congressional instruments, UN resolutions, the shortcomings of the African Union peacekeepers, splits in the Security Council and the role of China. They were up to speed on different lobbying and public awareness techniques. And they were angry about the world's feeble response to the slaughter.

They had all sorts of plans to increase the pressure on the Sudanese government, by focusing on their local legislators, the Bush administration, even the Beijing Olympics. Such conferences do have an effect, keeping Darfur in the public eye in the US and helping catalyse the Bush administration's sporadic - sadly only sporadic - attempts to pressurise Khartoum.

But all through the weekend of the student activists' debates and discussions and workshops one question kept nagging at me: where are their British equivalents?

Posted by Adam LeBor at December 12, 2006 03:16 PM | TrackBack

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