I have expressed my humble opinion about Sudan, Burma, Congo and other issues on many occasions on this blog, looking at the root causes and trying to explain them with simple words. I have close friends working in local organizations in France but also abroad, and it is always rewarding to discuss with experienced people. For the “60 Signers for the 60th Anniversary” Initiative I launched on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I had the opportunity to meet with the presidents of Amnesty International France, UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, UNESCO, UNHCR… Each time it was enriching and I had a glimpse at the other side of the coin, where the decisions are made. Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997), former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and member of The Elders, also signed the artwork I created and I am honored the independent group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, was part of this initiative. Everyone I know (concerned citizens, journalists, activists, volunteers in the field and members of organizations), all coming from the four corners of the Earth, bring their experience and expertise to the discussion. But I also listen to ‘simple people’, the ones who represent an important percentage of public opinion (and not necessarily dominant views) but who don’t directly support any organizations, unlike the people I just mentioned. They have a lot to say and listening to their arguments is a good way to understand shifts in public opinion and why sometimes it is hard to raise awareness about a specific issue.
Last week I have been forwarded by a dozen different people in less than an hour, a link to an article/op-ed posted on USA Today by John Prendergast: U.S. must help stop Sudan’s slow-motion war, quickly followed by: The value of sticks and carrots for Sudan published on the Enough Project website. Needless to say these articles immediately started a discussion, and we heard some strong reactions, the same ones we read in the comments on USA Today: ‘Our country has enough problems to deal with now’, ‘Let the UN handle this!‘, and so on. Considering the economic crisis and the fact some people work hard to make both ends meet, how can we blame them for wanting to solve their own problems first? Sudan but also Burma or Congo are foreign countries most people can’t even place on a map, so why would they care about the fate of men, women and children in distant suffering lands when they see their family, their friends or their fellow citizens suffering, being unemployed, sick or homeless? They wake up early in the morning, they have a job most of them don’t like, and maybe also work with people they can’t stand. Then they come back home, switch on the television and hopefully watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, Syriana, Blood Diamond… Not only entertainment. They eat, spend some time with their relatives, then they go to bed. This is how the majority of people live today in developed countries, and the worst is that even if they have a job, the money they earn is often not enough to live decently; these people have a name: the working poor. Those are real situations one can’t ignore if you want to stay in touch with the public opinion. I perfectly understand what they mean, even though I don’t agree with the intolerant and bigoted opinions underpinning some of the comments I read here and there about Prendergast’s article. I have always been bewildered, and this is an understatement, by the lack of empathy and selfishness.
Back to the power of carrot and stick. What is depressing when you try to raise awareness on a cause, and I experienced it myself so many times, is that from the beginning you know it will be difficult to reach your goal. Aid organizations in the field actually do something, volunteers work hard and I already said it many times, I have so much respect for those amazing people. But what about advocacy organizations? And what power do we really have, as citizens? Individually, not much, I am afraid. And what about our respective Presidents? Do the carrot and the stick are of any help when countries like China and Russia still collaborate with President Omar al-Bashir, indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur? When French and American companies like Total and Chevron fuel the Burmese Junta with their offshore gas fields money? When multinational corporations are importing conflict minerals and selling arms? When unregulated financial speculations (my post on this topic) put our economies at risk, create hunger, war or ecological disaster? Does our desire for sexy gadgets and trendy fashion clothes justify forcing some people to work in slave-labor conditions? There are so many examples to illustrate the awkwardness and the incoherence of the world we live in, and China, Russia, United States and France are not the only countries going astray. According to Antony Adolf in his post: When International Oil Firms Are Implicated in War Crimes, ‘a consortium of oil exploration and exploitation companies led by Swedish Lundin Petroleum and its partners including Petronas Carigali Overseas from Malaysia, OMV Exploration from Austria, and the Sudanese state-owned oil company Sudapet, are at least partly to blame for war crimes committed in Sudan between 1997 and 2003’. Now the carrot and the stick seem to have definitely lost their magical powers; Darfur [is indeed] a World Wide Role Playing Game.
This is when comes the recurring question: ‘What do we do now? Give up and see?’ Certainly not. The same way we finally realized we were all concerned by environmental issues since we are all living on the planet Earth (thanks to the man who ‘used to be the next president of the United States of America’ and other committed personalities), maybe it is time to realize it works the same way when it comes to the inhabitants on planet Earth. People saying we should first focus on solving problems in their own country are right, and they are also right when they say politicians have their hands tied when it comes to interior and foreign policies. The logical conclusion is that we, as simple citizens joining our forces together, are the only ones capable of actually doing something. I think if we first stop to accept the unacceptable at our own level, then it will spread and go up the ladder. If you want to fight corruption in your neighborhood and support local organizations, that would be great. If you feel concerned about a particular humanitarian crisis, if you want to raise awareness, spread the word and/or support aid/humanitarian organizations, just do it. Some people don’t have the energy, the time or the money to do such things; so if we can do something ourselves, even if it is not much, it is our duty to do it. I strongly believe Tall oaks from little acorns grow because in union there is strength. And I am certainly not naive saying that when you see the ‘miracles’ civil society and individuals can achieve (International Women’s Day: Extraordinary Women). Some people say ‘charity begins at home’, so I wish everyone who thinks we should focus on ‘our’ problems should first apply their remarks to themselves. Hopefully, many already do. I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty and I don’t pretend to be in any position to give out lessons, but we should all be more committed and not wait for others to do something. And it is not because you care about what is happening in a foreign country you don’t care about what is happening in your own country. Of all the ‘do-gooders’ I know and work with, I very seldom hear them complain about the lack of commitment from other people (they are already very busy with their hard work). The ones complaining are often the ones not doing so much themselves, because when you give your time and money you know the important is to give, whether it is to support someone in your neighborhood or abroad. Maybe some people should clean up their own backyard before making judgements on others.
The digression leads us back to the op-ed posted on USA Today and to The value of sticks and carrots for Sudan published on Enough Project. Prendergast suggests: ‘In exchange for peace in Darfur and the South, the U.S. would move to normalize relations with Sudan and work in the U.N. Security Council to suspend the war crimes indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir under Article 16 of the International Criminal Court charter’. I know Prendergast‘s goal is to help find solutions, and he is working with his colleagues at Enough on ‘a report that will spell out eight areas in which the U.S. already has leverage it is not utilizing, and proposes five more ways to increase that leverage’. But many people I know who fought hard so President Omar al-Bashir can be held accountable for his actions, are baffled by this proposition. So do I, even if I know Article 16 is not new. I guess a peace process can’t really work without a process of working out compromises just like I wrote in Darfur, Congo, Burma: is ‘good will’ enough?, but still. Does the value of sticks and carrots depends on who is holding the stick and what are the carrots? Surely. Unfortunately, talks (also known as ‘carrots’) with Iran to stop its nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations with the rest of the world didn’t bring (yet?) the anticipated results, and the military interventions (also known as the ‘sticks’) in Iraq and Afghanistan are not, to say the least, conclusive either. And this is not very far from what Prendergast suggests: ‘On the carrots side, the U.S. should present a quid pro quo with an expiration date by the end of the year […] to normalize relations with Sudan […] to suspend the war crimes indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’. As for the sticks: ‘… build international support for severe consequences for anyone promoting war…’. How did we get there? When I say ‘we’, I mean peace activists. How is it even possible to think we could simply erased and turn a blind eye on what Bashir did only if he is kind enough to accept not to ‘do it’ again? If the International Criminal Court‘s indictment of the Sudanese President didn’t change a thing for him, then how can we imagine written promises or agreements will do? CPA was a long time ago… Does that mean his scare-tactics are working so well, what we call our ‘carrot’ is in fact Bashir‘s stick on us? Puzzling. And what about our stick: the ‘severe consequences’. If it is about isolation or blockade, we know from Iraq child mortality in the country had more than doubled when United Nations sanctions were imposed. But before any blockade, we will have first to pull our own companies out of the country, which is far from being done. Now if we talk about a military intervention, then the stick is in the hands of Prendergast‘s fellow American citizens and President who are more preoccupied by the situation of their country rather than the one of the Darfuris. It turns out ‘multilateral sticks’ may not remain the greatest tool and the value of sticks and carrots depends on your point of view. But I am eager to learn more about the eight areas in which the U.S. already has leverage on Sudan since Article 16 Prendergast mentions had no lasting effects on Omar al-Bashir. Bashir and his inner circle obviously don’t view international justice as a serious threat. I told you, Darfur: when History is a never ending story…
Then we go back to Paragraph 3: what is exactly our room to manoeuvre when the companies of the so-called ‘international allies’ with which the U.S should work ‘to build the kind of package of incentives and pressures’ are already openly and without scruples ‘working’ with (and sometimes even depend on) Sudan, Burma, Congo, and so on? Even if Special Envoy Gration said that the U.S. does not have any leverage in Sudan based on controversial reasons, we can’t ignore the fact our economic interests are intertwined, money is the root of all and we depend on foreign gas, oil, production, credit… If we tend to forget that fact, Russia and China rightfully remind it to us. The wars, the deaths and the difficulties people are facing everyday are only consequences of our greed and blind over consumption. What if we could openly tell China about Human Rights and Tibet without we fear economic retaliation? What if we could tell Russia about Chechnya and freedom of the press? What if we could clean up our own backyard and stop our companies from getting natural resources from corrupted countries? We surely didn’t kill millions of people (well, we actually did but it was a long time ago, even if some people would say we still do by omission) but our indifference has a responsibility in what is happening. We often look away because it is easier to close our eyes than to keep them open and face the reality. We vote for politicians who make great promises to be elected and then hardly keep their word and it is not without consequences. Read Nick Kristof‘s Has Obama Forgotten Darfur? and you will get the point. But let me be clear: we have to look for solutions and I have to say Prendergast and other activists are in a difficult position regarding the current situation in Sudan, not mentioning the upcoming 2011 South Sudan referendum. Even journalists are having a hard time. I read on Twitter @SamaGazette a message sent by Nick Kristof: ‘Reader comments on this blog r depressing. Many think Obama SHLD neglect Darfur and other foreign crises’. Kristof is a columnist for The Times since 2001 and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (read ‘Half the Sky’ if you didn’t already). He has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to more than 150 countries, plus all 50 states, every Chinese province and every main Japanese island, and like many people he thinks the comments on his post are depressing. Sadly, the comments reflect the mood of the public opinion and as a journalist, he is in a good position to know that News cycle turnover [is definitely] our today’s worst enemy. A ‘mood’ that appears to be shared by others in the Obama administration (as well as in the Sarkozy government, by the way) but like I said in Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama’s election: Free at last?, the higher the expectations, the more prone to disappoint.
To conclude, I would say it is hard to stay motivated, every action is hard to determine and to advocate for, and in the end it is only a drop in the ocean, we all know that. I already exposed this delicate situation many times. The most revealing part of John Prendergast‘s post is in the last paragraph: ‘In recent years, because the Bush and Obama administrations have done such a poor job of marshaling support for multilateral pressures, we have focused inordinately on advocacy for such pressures to counter their propensity to offer carrots. This tactic on our part led many to conclude we simply wanted to hammer the NCP no matter what the facts. The position we took in the op-ed is an attempt to recalibrate our message back to its original form, where we advocate for both sticks AND carrots – not just as they relate to the NCP’s behavior in a single context, but in promotion of peace for the country as a whole’. It is so clear we need to work all together if we want actions to be effective. Even if sometimes it is like we are speaking to a brick wall, it must not be forgotten that people of good will are everywhere and they work hard to provide help and find solutions, although sometimes I think it is People of goodwill against the rest of the world. This, we should always remember. So I may be skeptical about the power/value of carrot(s) and stick(s) and the results we can get eventually, but I am not skeptical at all concerning everyone’s motivation at Enough Project, Save Darfur Coalition and other organizations/advocacy groups, inside and outside the United States, to explore all the possibilities to change the fate of millions of people in Sudan but also in Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi and a thousand monks. Again; for Afghan Women Making the News in Paris; or in Haiti: compassion, communication, occupation… Education?.
Note: Comments for this post are open on the Sama Gazette Website.