In an effort to draw attention to the suffering in the Darfur region of Sudan, five members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and several other concerned citizens, trespassed Monday at Sudan’s embassy in the nation’s capital and were arrested.
One of those arrested was Rep. Keith Ellison, from Minnesota’s Fifth District. The congressman, who is serving his second term, told Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) that he submitted to arrest to publicize the “appalling decision of the Khartoum government in Sudan to expel 13 relief agencies that are serving over [1.1 million people] in the Darfur region. This is about 6,500 relief workers who are ordered out of the country, and these relief workers care for these Darfurians who have been assaulted… starved, raped, and everything else.”
Ellison reportedly has never been arrested before, unlike his colleague, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and icon of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Lewis, who also was arrested on Monday, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It is important to send a message not only to the people in this country and our own government, but to the people of the world that the genocide in Darfur must end. What is going on there are crimes against humanity.”
The civil disobedience action at Sudan’s embassy was designed, in part, to alert the Obama administration to the unfolding tragedy in Darfur. “We need urgent action, given the escalation of danger” after the Khartoum government’s decision to expel the aid workers, Ellison told MPR. He pointed out that more than a million people “are now without the basic necessities of life.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, also was cuffed and hauled away. In a statement issued to the press, Saperstein quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “who described the most tragic political sin good people can make — that we will be ‘too late.’ As he said, ‘We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.’ Later, there will be time for regret for past failures; now is the time for action. For make no mistake, our legacies will be measured not by our sentiments or even our efforts, but by whether in the end we stop or fail to stop this genocide, by whether we save the children or they perish on our watch.”
The action by Ellison, Lewis, Saperstein and their colleagues is consonant with this country’s exalted tradition of civil disobedience. We should not forget that Martin Luther King was hounded by the FBI, which regarded him as a dangerous subversive. After his assassination, his legacy as a leader of a movement of social uplift is taught to schoolchildren, and a national holiday now marks his birthday.
Predictably, some politicians and pundits have criticized the members of Congress for “grandstanding,” in regard to the civil disobedience action. Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Carey called Ellison’s action a publicity stunt, according to MPR. “Nobody can condone genocide, but as a member of Congress, I think Congressman Ellison has the responsibility to be a role model and set an example. What does it say to other citizens when you have a congressman who is blatantly on purpose violating the law?”
Ellison told MPR that he has “some sympathy for that criticism; I don’t think any member of Congress should ever break any law lightly.” However, the overriding consideration for Ellison was the great human suffering in the balance. He termed the crisis in Darfur as a “dramatic condition, which requires some dramatic action. Look, five members of Congress getting arrested is a news-getting event.”
Indeed, the action at Sudan’s embassy on Monday did attract the press, and perhaps people will look again at the complicated situation in Darfur.
The genocidal policies of the Sudanese regime have taken a turn for the worse, following the indictment of the nation’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Sudanese dictator, who is wanted by the ICC in the Hague, decided that the various international aid agencies were in cahoots with the ICC.
Last week Sudan’s ambassador to the United States, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, told Reuters: “The expelled organizations for us are a closed file. It’s irreversible.” That means groups including Oxfam, CARE, Save the Children and Médecins Sans FrontiÃ¨res (Doctors Without Borders) are banned from the country.
There are efforts underway to negotiate an end to the warfare between Sudan and groups in Darfur, just as the 20-year war between the north and south of Sudan was brought to an end. The ICC indictment of al-Bashir has complicated attempts to reach a settlement in Darfur.
As the status quo drags on, thousands of human lives hang in the balance.
“A few years ago when I visited the camps, courageous mothers and grandmothers and dedicated relief staff were making unbelievable strides in saving the children,” noted Rabbi Saperstein. “But no longer. This past year, the situation has deteriorated with increasing rapidity.”
The activist rabbi added: “I have a nightmare that years from now, there will be a Museum of the Darfurian Genocide that will be part of the genocide trail. And tourists will go from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Auschwitz and Treblinka to Darfur, to learn of the pillage, rape, murder and starvation. And they will gasp and they will sob, and many among them will doubtless wonder: Where were our parents? Where were our President and Congress? Did they not know? Did they not care? We cannot let that happen.”
— Mordecai Specktor /Â firstname.lastname@example.org