President Obama Needs to Make a Phone Call Against Genocide

by Rafael Medoff

President Obama has a special envoy to Darfur. He has a senior national security adviser who authored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about genocide. He even has a newly appointed “Atrocities Prevention Board.” Yet the leader of a small, deeply impoverished African country this week did more to combat genocide than all of the president’s envoys, advisers, and boards put together.

Joyce Banda is the new president of Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa. It is one of the most underdeveloped and overcrowded nations in the world. With a frighteningly high rate of AIDS and other deadly disease, life expectancy is 50 years. But Malawi’s problems did not stop Ms. Banda, in her very first month in office, from striking an important blow against genocide by announcing that she will not allow Sudanese president Omar Bashir to attend an upcoming African Union summit in Malawi.

President Bashir was indicted in 2009 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his central role in the Darfur genocide. It charged him with “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” for sponsoring Arab militias that have carried out a campaign of “extermination, rape and torture” against the people of Darfur.

Despite his indictment, Bashir has traveled openly to numerous Arab and African countries, including some that are major recipients of U.S. aid. Yet the Obama administration has made no effort to capture Bashir. In fact, it has been noticeably reluctant even to criticize the countries that have hosted the man with the well-earned title, “the Butcher of Darfur.”

Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in November 2010, senior Obama adviser Samantha Power (author of “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide) said, “President Obama has been very outspoken on the occasions that President Bashir has traveled.” But a search of the White House website turns up exactly one sentence by President Obama, in August 2010, expressing “disappointment” that Kenya hosted the mass murderer. Not one word by the “very outspoken” president in response to Bashir’s visits to other countries that are supposed allies of the U.S., such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Last month, Dr. Power hosted a White House conference to mark the launch of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, which she chairs. During the question-and-answer session, a Darfur genocide survivor asked if the U.S. has any plans to arrest Bashir. The only response he could get out of the nine White House and State Department officials and staffers on the panel was vague references to “accountability mechanisms” and “justice capabilities.”

Later in the day, at a Power-moderated panel on Sudan, another Sudanese visitor tried his luck. Why, he asked, wasn’t the U.S. doing something to “send the criminal Bashir to [the] ICC?” U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman replied: “When you’re looking for allies, your African allies and others, they do recognize [Bashir’s] government … Sudan and Bashir is a member of the African Union, so we have to accommodate those realities.” In other words, they accept Bashir, so we have to do likewise. That’s not the kind of moral leadership the U.S. should be providing.

From Ambassador Lyman’s remark, the audience might have been misled into thinking that all of Africa is united in support of Bashir. But that’s just not true. Yes, some African countries have hosted Bashir. But the government of South Africa has announced it will arrest Bashir if he steps foot in its territory. So has the government of Botswana. A similar statement by the foreign minister of Uganda kept Bashir from attending a conference there several years ago. Now add Malawi’s President Joyce Banda of Malawi to the growing list of African voices against genocide.

The United States should be taking a principled stand against genocide, by siding with those African leaders who want mass murderers behind bars, not those who are willing to do business with them. If the Atrocities Prevention Board expects to be taken seriously, it must send a message to the international community that those who are under indictment for genocide or other atrocities will be treated like pariahs and brought to justice, not coddled and accommodated.

Malawi’s president deserves a phone call from the White House to assure her that America supports her position.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates received a phone call from President Obama when he got into an altercation with a Boston police officer. Sandra Fluke received a phone call from the president when she was insulted by a radio talk show host. Joyce Banda deserves a call, too.

As published in the Huffington Post – May 24, 2012

May 2012