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Olympics-Related Advocacy Could Help Change Chinese Policy on Darfur, says Boalt Human Rights Expert (10/5/07)

China will use the 2008 Summer Olympics, to be held in Beijing, "as an international coming out party, casting itself as an economic power, technological innovator and diplomatic leader of the first rank," writes Jamie O'Connell, program officer in Boalt Hall's International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) in a September 23 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed piece. Human rights activists, however, have labeled the games the "Genocide Olympics," highlighting the Chinese government's support for genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. This strategy has promise, writes O'Connell, who conducts research and advocacy on genocide and crimes against humanity for the IHRLC , but he argues that this strategy must be accompanied by more vigorous action on the part of the United States and European governments.

Since 2003, the government of Sudan and Arab militias have bombed and raided villages inhabited by non-Arab Muslims in Darfur. More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have fled to refugee camps inside the country and in neighboring Chad. The Bush administration and Congress have described the government's actions as "genocide." "China has made the atrocities possible," O'Connell writes, through its economic and diplomatic support of Sudan. China's purchases of Sudanese oil and investments in developing oil fields saps the force of the U.S. government's decade-old trade embargo on Sudan. The likelihood of a Chinese veto has stymied efforts in the UN Security Council to impose international economic sanctions.

O'Connell explains that human rights activists are using the Olympics to try to change Chinese policy. Public events, celebrity statements, and petition drives "have three goals: shaming China into action, persuading the Olympics' corporate sponsors—such as Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Visa—to urge Beijing to change its policies on Darfur, and educating the public and policymakers on Darfur and China's role."

China appears to be responding to the pressure, O'Connell believes, but the "Genocide Olympics" campaign needs to be part of a larger strategy. He urges readers to press the U.S. government to intensify its diplomatic efforts in Sudan, working with France and, if possible, China. "Darfur activist movements in Europe and key developing countries, such as South Africa, also need to grow," O'Connell adds. Finally, O'Connell considers continued divestment from the small number of corporations that are lending key support to the Sudanese government—already undertaken by the state of California—to be critical.

"Olympics-related activism also shouldn't go too far," O'Connell cautions, singling out the call by U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) for the United States to boycott the Olympics. O'Connell endorses the conclusion by leading U.S. Darfur activist group the Save Darfur Coalition that pushing for a boycott would be counterproductive. "A boycott would erode the marketing power that Darfur activists are harnessing," writes O'Connell. "Boycott calls are also divisive, pitting some activists—and politicians—against athletes, sports fans, and others who are equally concerned about Darfur but believe the Olympics should go forward at full strength."

O'Connell's work in the IHRLC also examines the relationship between human rights and counter-terrorism policy. He teaches a survey of countries emerging from dictatorship and civil war. Before coming to Boalt, he worked on post-conflict reconstruction and human rights in Sierra Leone, East Timor, South Africa, and Argentina.