President Obama Needs to Make a Phone Call Against Genocide

by Rafael Medoff

President Obama has a special envoy to Darfur. He has a National Security Council adviser who authored a Pulitzer Prize winning book about genocide.  He even has a brand new 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 that is severely underdeveloped and overcrowded, with a frighteningly high rate of AIDS and other deadly diseases and a life expectancy of 50 years. But her nation’s own 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 the Arab militias have carried out “attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property.”

Despite his indictment, the Butcher of Darfur 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 him.

Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in November 2010, National Security 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 web site 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 Q & A, a Darfur genocide survivor named Abdul Magid 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 some gobbledygook from Don Steinberg of the Agency for International Development about “accountability mechanisms” and “justice capabilities.” For some reason, Steinberg could not bring himself to mention Bashir by name.

Later in the day, another Sudanese visitor tried his luck. At a Power-moderated panel on Sudan, Ogda Midit asked why the U.S. was not doing something to “send the criminal Bashir to [the] ICC.” U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman, whom Power praised as “doing God’s work,” replied by patting himself on the back about Bashir supposedly complaining that Lyman had been too critical of him. (But one doubts that Bashir was too unhappy when Lyman asserted last year that “we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change.”)

Lyman also claimed that the reason the U.S. has not taken a tougher line on Bashir is that “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.”

But wait a minute. Earlier in the panel, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson gave a lengthy discourse on the importance of not generalizing about Africa. “Africa should not be looked at as a single continent, but should be divided up and looked at as individual states,” Carson said.

That’s an approach Power, Lyman, and company should keep in mind when they justify tolerating Bashir on the grounds that other African countries recognize him.  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.  And now President Joyce Banda of Malawi has joined 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 then 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 Prof. 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.

June 2013