Genocide may be the worst of crimes, but historically it has also brought out the best in some people.
The Raoul Wallenbergs of 2007 speckle America and the globe. And I don’t just ean the aid workers — 13 of whom have been murdered for their efforts in Darfur since ast May — but also those ordinary Americans who have united in a grass-roots campaign to try to stop genocide half a world away in Sudan.
President Bush and other world leaders have dropped the ball on Darfur. But that vacuum of moral leadership has been filled by university students, churches and temples, celebrities like George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and armies of schoolchildren.
Their arsenal — green armbands, phone calls to the White House, bake sales to raise money — all seem pallid. How can a “Save Darfur” lawn sign in Peoria intimidate government-backed raiders in Sudan or Chad who throw babies into bonfires? Yet, finally, we see evidence that those armbands and lawn signs can make a difference. Last week, the Save Darfur Coalition — the grass-roots organization that puts out those lawn signs — sponsored a trip by Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, to Khartoum to negotiate with President Omar al-Bashir.
Sure, it’s a little weird when a private advocacy group undertakes freelance diplomacy. But if George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Hu Jintao twiddle their thumbs, then more power to the freelancers.
Mr. Richardson worked out a joint statement in which Sudan agreed to a 60-day cease-fire to allow peace talks to resume, provided the Darfur rebels go along as well. Mr. Bashir also agreed that Sudan would prosecute rapes and stop painting its military aircraft to look as if they belong to the U.N.
The first thing to say is that Mr. Bashir has repeatedly broken his pledges in the past. Count me deeply skeptical about whether it will be any different this time. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a Sudanese human rights campaigner, told me he thinks that President Bashir simply made cosmetic concessions in hopes of winning the chairmanship of the African Union later this month.
That said, there may be a path forward here. While U.N. peacekeepers and a no-fly zone are needed, ultimately the only way to end the slaughter is to achieve a peace agreement in Darfur. And that seems more feasible today than it was a week ago.
Most striking, it’s clear that the cease-fire was a consequence of all those armbands
and lawn signs. Mr. Richardson told me that Mr. Bashir was motivated by concern at the way the killings have been spotlighted by Darfur activists. Mr. Richardson quoted him as saying, “These guys have caused me a lot of damage.”
Ken Bacon, who heads Refugees International and accompanied Mr. Richardson, said of President Bashir: “One thing that was very clear was that the Save Darfur movement has gotten under his skin. The vilification of the Khartoum regime in columns and editorials and ads is making a difference.”
So cherish this historical moment. The long record of genocide is one overwhelmingly of acquiescence, but this time ordinary citizens are trying to write a different
ending. There are the students at Santa Clara University in California who replicated a mini refugee camp and slept in it. They limited themselves to 1,000 calories a day — because that’s what Darfuris are limited to — and donated the savings to aid groups.
Or there’s Jason Miller, a California M.D./Ph.D student who in his spare time has become the foremost expert on how investments by foreign companies underwrite the Sudanese genocide. Or Beth Reilly, a stay-at-home mom in Indiana who works on Darfur a little bit every day. Or the legions of schoolkids who organize car washes, and ask for donations in lieu of birthday presents, in hopes of saving other children halfway around the globe.
Sudan’s leaders are used to bullying everyone. Jan Pronk, who was the United Nations envoy in Sudan until Khartoum ejected him, reports in his Weblog that a U.N. official recently went to the authorities in Darfur to complain about human rights violations. A Sudanese official retorted: “You better shut up. We can always expel you, as we have proven.”
But finally President Bashir is confronting people whom he can’t bully. Let’s have no illusions about how much more pressure will be necessary to stop the slaughter, but let’s also celebrate this moment. Mr. Bashir has blinked, showing that it just may be
possible to fight genocide with moral courage and lawn signs.
You can read more from Nicholas Kristof at his blog: "On the Ground."