A Genocide’s Path, A Generation’s Potential

On January 26, 2006, freezing temperatures did not deter Yale students from stopping between classes for a lecture of a different kind. Standing in Beinecke Plaza in front of grand marble memorials to past wars, Professor Adam Jones addressed a growing crowd about a horrific genocide taking place now in Darfur, Sudan. He condemned the international community’s inaction while in three short years, armed militiamen known as the janjaweed have killed 200,000 Darfuris and driven 2.5 million more into insecure and undersupplied refugee camps, where they face continued threats of violence, rape, and starvation.

Student speakers emphasized that Darfur was not a distant issue. Yale had been indirectly financing these 200,000 murders, for the university’s endowment included investments in seven oil companies connected to the Sudanese government, which funded the janjaweed militia in its campaign of violence. The crowd rallying in Beinecke drew the attention of Yale students, the administration, and local press as they demanded that Yale University immediately use its economic and political leverage to change the course of events in Sudan.

Demonstration on Yale's Beinecke Plaza. (Courtesy STAND)

The students galvanizing the crowd were members of the Yale chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), a nationwide coalition of student activists committed to ending the Darfur genocide. Yale STAND worked for months to gather the evidence of Yale’s financial connections to Khartoum and the 1,000 student signatures necessary to persuade the Yale Investment Advisory Committee of the importance of the issues. The Advisory Committee was swayed by the students’ arguments and counseled the Yale Corporation to reassess its endowment investments in Sudan. Less than three weeks after the protest, the Yale Corporation announced its decision to divest from all companies found to have a connection to the Sudanese government.

This was a major achievement for Yale STAND, and the students took it as a symbol that they could do more. Shortly after Yale’s divestment, the student group began lobbying senators and pressuring the Connecticut legislature to divest state pension plans from oil companies providing revenue to Khartoum. Responding to this pressure, Connecticut divested in May 2006, joining a movement of state divestments triggered by student activists around the country.

These divestment campaigns are only one facet of a powerful student activist movement urging action on Darfur at the university, state, and national levels. In the face of international neglect, American students have alerted the country to the Darfur genocide and successfully compelled the government to make Darfur a national priority. Through STAND’s countrywide “Power to Protect” campaign, President Bush received a million postcards demanding that the administration strengthen its stance on Darfur. Yalies joined over 800 students in Washington, DC for a Darfur Weekend in April 2006 to rally on the national mall and lobby Congress to act.

“There is a totally linear relationship between student activism and legislative output on Darfur,” said Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power credits students for spurring at least 50% of Congress’ actions against genocide in Darfur. One example is the 2006 Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which puts economic and diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government and supports African Union peacekeeping troops. “American student activists have had a colossal impact,” Power told The Yale Globalist. “It is only because there has been so little movement in other areas that we haven’t seen more action.”

Ronan Farrow (LAW ’09), believes that American students are “the moral force of our country” at this pivotal time in Darfur’s history. Unusual in the scope of his own activism, Farrow graduated from Bates College at age 15 with a passion for human rights and served as a spokesperson for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Sudan. He visited Darfur in 2004 and again this last June, witnessing the mounting atrocities and deplorable conditions of the refugee camps. While most students read about the importance of deploying a UN peacekeeping force in the region, Ronan felt the urgency first-hand. He remembers meeting Hawa, whose vivid scars bear witness to brutal raping and beating by the janjaweed militiamen. She was forced to flee her ravaged village as her husband and son were marched away at gunpoint. Hawa greeted Farrow with a painstakingly painted sign: “Welcome, Welcome, UN.” She stood with other refugees whose signs bore messages of “We Need Protection” and “Help Us, United Nations,” imploring the international community to send troops and resources.

The Sudanese government has recently suggested that it may allow United Nations peacekeeping forces into Darfur to assist the feeble African Union (AU) troops in the region. This is a huge step forward—although many obstacles remain before Hawa will have the protection of troops on the ground. Many obstacles remain for American student activists and the American government, too. The United States does not hold enough sway over the Khartoum regime to successfully urge follow-through and compliance with AU-UN troops, and it lacks the diplomatic standing to contribute troops to a peacekeeping unit in an Arab country. So what are students in the most pivotal countries doing to encourage their governments to act?

Missed Potential

France, initially a supporter of the Khartoum regime, has slowly come around to denounce the genocide in Darfur and call for UN peacekeepers in Darfur. With significant oil interests in Sudan and a seat on the Security Council, it initially opposed any UN sanctions or troop deployment in the country. Have students motivated this shift in government policy? In a country known for its tradition of protests and strikes, are French students capitalizing on this culture and history of action to take a stand against the genocide?

Damien Aubineau is at the heart of political debate among young people in France. A first-year student at L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences- Po), his classmates will comprise the next generation of French politicians. But while he acknowledges that students discuss politics and international affairs “all the time,” neither students nor the French media focuses on Darfur.

French students enjoy freedom of speech and the freedom to form student groups. Yet student groups focus on fundraising for what Aubineau described as “institutional problems”—more static, sociological issues, like poverty in India— rather than emerging conflicts and controversies. Activism on international issues is not common. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that activism is a powerful agent of change, as French students proved just last year when they influenced the country’s new labor contract by demonstrating throughout France. But Aubineau points out that this was a separate case. “What I am sure is that nobody can impact the foreign policy of the government. It may be the only thing which would be too vital for France to change because of demonstrations.”

But because of France’s historic connection with Sudan and its critical role in changing the conflict, one of the most pressing human rights problems in the world today should be considered a matter of national and moral importance for each French citizen. French students have proven their power to effect national change through past protests. They must now use that leverage to demand the governmental action necessary to stop violence in Darfur.

Local Limitations

In two of the countries that have the most power to change the course of events in Sudan—China and Egypt—student activism is a challenge.

The Chinese government has been one of Khartoum’s greatest backers from the start of the conflict. Dependent upon south Sudan for more than ten percent of its oil, it has recently begun to invest in Sudanese gold and iron deposits, as well. Moreover, China has continued to send military equipment and small arms to Sudan despite clear evidence of the government’s crimes and a 2005 UN total weapons embargo on the country. It was China that demanded the crippling caveat in UN Resolution 1706 that deployment of UN peacekeeping troops could only occur with the consent of the Sudanese government, and, until recently, China openly declared its support for Khartoum’s persistent refusals. China has politically and financially supported the Khartoum regime in the course of this genocide.

But even as their government has vocally supported the corrupt Sudanese government, Chinese students have remained silent on the issue of Darfur. As in France, part of this may have to do with lack of knowledge about Darfur. Tien (Terry) Zhaohuan, a student at Peking University in Beijing, explained that discussions of international affairs on his university campus were mostly limited to Japan, the U.S., and China. Zhaoyu Li (’10), an international student at Yale from China, agreed. “Frankly speaking, Chinese media don’t really care about conflicts in African countries,” he said.

Do Chinese students have the ability to force Darfur into the media as American activists have and challenge their government’s role in the genocide? Because Chinese students cannot openly criticize their government, even the limited discussion that occurs on campus could never focus on a topic like China’s controversial role in Darfur. Moreover, the few discussions that do take place never translate into campus activism. Li explained that this was not always the case. Campus activism was prevalent in the 1920s, 1930s, and again in the late 1980s to early 1990s. “But one thing that the students have learned from history is that activist activities will lead to more bloodshed and more bad things than good influence,” Li said, referring to Tiananmen square. “Students now tend to be more realistic or practical. So the main concern for them is basically about finding a good job [and] living a good life, instead of doing activist activities.”

While Chinese students may not have the freedom or mindset of American activists, their government is in a crucial place of influence. “If China threatened to remove its support, I think we would see instant action on the part of Khartoum,” Farrow said. Student activism within China will have to take a different form than the American activist movement given government restrictions. But China’s pivotal position necessitates the involvement of Chinese students in Darfur activism through creative means, like those forged by Egyptian college students.

As a member of the Arab League, Egypt has important diplomatic standing in Sudan, as well as financial interests like China. But Egyptian students are in a hard position to pressure their government to use this leverage for good, as James Pearce can attest. Pearce, a student at the American University at Cairo (AUC) pursuing a Masters in International Human Rights Law, laments that the topic of refugees and genocide has stayed within the safe limits of academic discussion. At an international university and in a country that is home to many Darfuri refugees, students should, in theory, be more aware and concerned about the genocide occurring directly to the south.

But James has found quite the opposite. “There is depressingly little discussion of political and social issues among AUC undergraduates,” he told The Yale Globalist, explaining that Darfur is hardly covered in the Egyptian media and is rarely described as genocide.

And even if there were awareness and discussion, activism could not easily follow. “The office of student development, where I worked for a semester in the community service program, enforces a campus rule—imposed by the Egyptian government—that no student clubs discuss ‘political or religious’ issues,” Pearce explained. “There is widespread recognition [among students] that the Mubarak government is awesome in its repressive powers and that dissenters are stifled in a number of disturbing ways.”

Pearce was president of Student Action for Refugees (STAR) in 2005. This group has had to tow the line carefully, limiting its activities to language classes and awareness days to avoid the authoritarian eye of the Egyptian government. STAR is by no means the sole humanitarian group on campus, although it is one of the most controversial. Pearce explained that, “Community service too often entails talking about vulnerable groups that are not politically sensitive, such as orphans or the elderly, instead of talking in earnest about groups that are marginalized for political or social reasons like Shiites in Egypt, members of the Muslim brotherhood, people with HIV/AIDS, and, to some extent, refugees.”

But this past September, STAR was able to organize a “Global Day for Darfur,” an event that involved 1,500 AUC students, faculty, and refugees. In the week leading up to the event, STAR set up an information booth on the AUC campus to raise awareness of the genocide. The day featured a film festival, music performances, art displays by Sudanese artists, and a candlelight vigil. It was led primarily by international students and consisted of more celebration and music than the substantive discussion Pearce would have liked. But such an event, was a great accomplishment in Cairo.

Global Action

On that day, STAR joined forces with activists planning hundreds of Global Day for Darfur events in over 40 countries around from world, from Tanzania to Mongolia to Brazil. The Darfur Days took different forms given their national limitations and strengths: a church in Hong Kong used Bishop Desmond Tutu’s prayer in service, while thousands of New Yorkers—including 130 Yale students mobilized by STAND—rallied in Central Park. This may be the start of the kind of international collaboration that can save thousands of lives in Darfur.

Students within each country face different obstacles in their activism, and they all must seek innovative solutions to overcome them. In the United States, this will mean thinking beyond the traditional campus activism model and using resources in unconventional ways to target actors beyond the government. In countries like China, Egypt, and France, students must start to have more frequent dialogues about international issues and their significance to immediate national realities. They can then explore the potential power their citizenship gives them to influence international affairs.

A solution for Darfur will take a combination of national resources, from the financial support of the United States to the diplomatic power of China and the troop commitments of African nations. Students in each nation must use whatever creative means possible to demand these contributions from their countries.

We all face limitations. But when refugees like Hawa can hold signs calling for change, we have no excuse but to do the same from our campuses.