You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Genocide Games

An international outcry over Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games has grown steadily louder in recent months. How, it is being asked, can the premier event in international sports be hosted by a nation complicit in the most heinous international crimes? The Chinese regime is guilty of perpetrating the ongoing destruction of Tibet, supporting the vicious Myanmar junta, engaging in gross domestic human rights abuses, and, perhaps worst of all, facilitating genocide in Darfur.

Despite the controversy, President Bush announced last week that he will attend the Games. It's an unprecedented move--apparently no American president has ever attended an Olympic Games held abroad--and China's human rights violations make Bush's decision seem all the more unwarranted. But perhaps he'll be able to shield himself from criticism next summer by sharing a view of the Games with Steven Spielberg, who agreed in March to serve as an artistic consultant for the opening and closing ceremonies.

This is distressing because China has proven adept at generating political cover for its misdeeds. It recently received some excessively generous praise for not opposing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1769, passed on July 31, which authorizes a force of some 26,000 civilian police and troops to protect civilians and humanitarians in Darfur. But China was instrumental in badly weakening the resolution, leaving it without a mandate to disarm combatants, even those carrying weapons introduced into Darfur in violation of previous Security Council resolutions. As both Amnesty International and the U.N. Panel of Experts on Darfur have amply demonstrated, Khartoum continues to violate the weapons embargo on a massive scale. Further, China was also the key player in removing any threat of sanctions against Khartoum for obstructing deployment of the U.N.-authorized force.

China also drew praise for appointing a "special envoy" for Darfur. But Liu Guijin's first carefully orchestrated tour of the region in May was the occasion only for airbrushing its genocidal realities in subsequent public statements. "I didn't see a desperate scenario of people dying of hunger," Liu said at a media briefing. Rather, he said, people in Darfur thanked him for the Chinese government's help in building dams and providing water supply equipment. Beijing has yet to condemn Khartoum for its crimes, or call for a halt to the ongoing aerial bombardment of civilian targets, or offer public criticism of any of the regime's actions, including repeated obstruction and harassment of the world's largest humanitarian operation. By refusing to speak truthfully about Darfur, Beijing has convinced these brutal genocidaires that there will be no real international pressure on them to stop.

Now, Bush and Spielberg are contributing further to the whitewashing of China's record of abuse. Sophie Richardson, an Asia expert at Human Rights Watch, said that by attending the Olympics in Beijing Bush was giving "an enormous propaganda opportunity to an abusive government." Spielberg has declared publicly that, "all of us are dedicated to making these Olympic opening and closing ceremonies the most emotional anyone has ever seen." But what "emotions" does the director of "Schindler's List" associate with genocide in Darfur? When the brutal Janjaweed militias throw African children, screaming in terror, into bonfires as their parents watch, what emotions are evoked for Spielberg? When young girls are brutally gang-raped, what thoughts spring to mind? When malnutrition claims the lives of more and more Darfuri victims, what feelings should attend the spectacle of agony that is starvation? It's inconceivable that such negative images will be included in Spielberg's show.

The Bush administration has much to answer for on Darfur--its failed policies and even larger failure of nerve and will. Andrew Natsios, the president's (incongruously half-time) special envoy for Sudan, has been the most outspoken in attempting to walk back the administration's characterization of Darfur as the site of genocide. For all the tough talk about "NATO stewardship" for a mission in Darfur, Bush and his Defense Department have failed to make any significant commitment of the resources necessary for the current peace support operation there (particularly transport, logistics, aircraft, and intelligence-gathering capacity). And, most shamefully, the administration continues to mouth concern for Darfur even while it cuts expedient deals with Khartoum for supposed "terrorist intelligence."

Despite such feckless behavior by the United States, it remains the case that China possesses unique leverage with Khartoum--leverage that might move the regime from its present obdurate defiance of the international community. But unless Beijing feels a great deal more pressure than it currently does, the status quo in Darfur will be preserved, as Khartoum's thugs confidently buy more time to allow a grim genocide by attrition to complete itself.

What can change Beijing's currently enabling attitudes is a real threat that "their" Olympics will be redefined, made the occasion of an unprecedented shaming campaign. Much more potent than a simple boycott--which does more to punish athletes and the entire international sports community--such a campaign, broadly supported, will create precisely the powerful forum for outrage that Beijing works so hard to suppress domestically. But this is unlikely to occur so long as key international actors like President Bush, and high-profile international figures like Steven Spielberg, pretend that the 2008 Games occur in a moral and political vacuum. And yet if Darfur's agony continues, these Games will inevitably be remembered as the "Genocide Olympics."

By Eric Reeves