x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Arrest of Clooney over Sudan 'may make things worse'

Some aid workers are critical of George Clooney's methods to raise awareness about Sudan's humanitarian crisis

George Clooney and his father Nick, centre, are arrested for trespassing at the Sudanese embassy in Washington.
George Clooney and his father Nick, centre, are arrested for trespassing at the Sudanese embassy in Washington.

JUBA // Only a true cynic could doubt actor George Clooney's commitment to stopping a humanitarian crisis after he was arrested on Friday in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington.

But some aid workers said his recent approach to raising awareness about attacks against civilians in Sudan may actually undermine efforts to improve the situation.

Mr Clooney was back in the US after visiting a war-ravaged Sudanese state and a refugee camp across the border in South Sudan. His arrest came after days of media events, as well as the release of a video filmed in the conflict area and posted by the advocacy group Enough Project.

Some critics, however, questioned the timing of the media blitz. They pointed out that it began amid sensitive negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan over a host of issues outstanding since the south declared independence last July. Tension between the two has simmered since then, sometimes exploding into conflict along an ill-defined border.

"When you have interference which isn't timed well, which doesn't take into account the very sensitive process of negotiation, it can derail things," said one aid worker. "It can end up doing exactly what I'm sure the celebrity is trying not to do, which is to make things worse."

Mr Clooney's arrest came after he met Barack Obama, the US president, last week, testified in the US senate and attended a state dinner for David Cameron, Britain's prime minister.

The Oscar-winning actor, who has long been a prominent activist critical of the Khartoum government, was arrested along with his father and several members of Congress after being warned not to cross a police line outside the embassy. He was released several hours later after paying a US$100 (Dh367) fine.

The protesters accuse Omar Al Bashir, Sudan's president, of provoking a humanitarian crisis and blocking food and aid from entering the Nuba Mountains in the county's border region with South Sudan.

John Prendergast, who founded Enough and travelled with Mr Clooney, said they supported the peace process between the countries. But he said the Sudanese government must be held accountable for atrocities, regardless of the timing of the talks.

"That is separate from the fact that the regime in Khartoum is using starvation as a weapon and bombing its own citizens," he told The National yesterday. "We will continue to shine a spotlight on those war crimes until they end."

Key to that strategy of putting atrocities in the spotlight was the release on Thursday of a four-minute video written and directed by Mr Clooney, which follows him into the Nuba Mountains where the government has been bombing civilians in its fight against insurgents. It's a region US officials have said could soon suffer food shortages.

But observers of the conflict said the video provides a simplistic analysis, portraying the rebels as heroes in a conflict about lighter-skinned Arabs killing black Africans, in the words of one rebel interviewed by the filmmakers. The reality is more complicated, they said.

"It is a fundamentally political conflict," said Casie Copeland, an adviser with Pact, a Washington-based peace-building organisation. "They are not fighting simply because they are different races. They are fighting because of a host of political grievances."

Mr Prendergast said the focus of the video was the day-to-day life of the people.

"Causes can be debated by outsiders, but the video attempted to capture the sentiment of local people who are being bombed on a daily basis and see the immediate cause as being one of ethnic targeting," he said. "The video attempts to portray the reality of what life is like for the people of the Nuba Mountains."

Ms Copeland also accused the filmmakers of ethical violations -in particular an interview with a boy who has had both hands blown off. She said the segment, which focused on the boy's bloody stumps as a rebel soldier stood in the background, could jeopordise the child's safety. The clip was removed from the video soon after The National submitted questions about its ethics.

"It violates the human rights of that boy, so for an NGO that claims to be promoting human rights I think it's really problematic," said an aid agency employee.

Mr Clooney's conduct during his stay in the refugee camp has also sparked anger. After hearing that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was considering providing residents with half a month's rations rather than a full month's, he berated a UNHCR official publicly, according to witnesses.

"I think we all appreciate when someone that commands the attention of the world draws attention to the suffering and the plight of people who very often get forgotten," said an aid worker.

"I think where it's not so useful is when someone who doesn't really understand what we're trying to do comes in and starts offering unsolicited advice about how the programme should go."

Mireille Girard, UNHCR's representative in South Sudan, said that the agency had no intention of withholding food permanently. Rather, officials had been discussing whether to provide half rations immediately and the other half later.

She said tensions along the border were building and the agency was concerned that refugees might have to flee and could be reluctant to do so if they had a full month's rations, which they would not be able to carry with them.



* with an additional report from the Associated Press