WASHINGTON — In the film Charlie Wilson’s War, a U. S. congressman is stunned when his colleagues on Capitol Hill shift the discussion away from Afghanistan just as the Soviet Union invade the country.
On Wednesday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., advanced the 2007 drama to modern foreign policy, saying many policymakers turned their attention back to the troubled region only after the September 11 attacks.
Lawmakers now face a similar dilemma as the spotlight illuminates the tenuous situation in Sudan and South Sudan, Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said.
“It is the leaders in Khartoum and Nuba who must choose between a future of conflict and poverty, or a future of security and prosperity,” Kerry said.
At the committee’s hearing, Kerry and other lawmakers expressed concern that the United States would overlook the lingering conflict between the two neighboring countries. Kerry alluded to the late Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson, best known for his persistent push for increased U.S. support of the Afghan mujahedeen during its fight against the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
A series of panels discussed the economic and political situation in Sudan and South Sudan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.
After returning from a visit to Sudan, actor George Clooney, co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project, said he had encountered a young boy whose arms were blown off in a bombing in the Khartoum region
“What you see is a constant drip of fear,” he said. “We can’t get those lives back. We can’t give that young boy’s hands back, but we can work together as an international community.”
Clooney asserted that Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir continues to commit war crimes on its people. He urged China to send an envoy into Sudan and “to use the window of opportunity before it is too late.”
Princeton Lyman, U.S. special envoy for Sudan, said conflicts over oil and borders have strained the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan, which gained independence from its northern neighbor last July.
South Sudan produces 75 percent of the region’s oil, yet Sudan has the only pipeline to transport the oil for export. Lyman said Sudan has started diverting oil from South Sudan to its own refinery. South Sudan President Salva Kiir has accused Sudan of illegally seizing $815 million worth of crude oil.
In retaliation, South Sudan halted all of its oil production in early February and cut off the flow through the pipeline. More than 90 percent of South Sudan’s revenue comes from oil production.
At the same time, Lyman said, reports of aerial bombings and border attacks from rebels in the region have lawmakers worried about the long-term stability of humanitarian assistance.
On his trip, Clooney said the people fear the constant buzzing from Antonov planes, which the Sudanese forces use to dump bombs.
Four senators introduced a Senate resolution demanding that Sudan allow immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access to the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions. According to the Famine Early Warning Network, more than 250,000 people in those regions will face emergency food shortages in the next three months.
“We are on the brink of another major humanitarian crisis in Sudan, and we need to act,” said Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, one of four senators who led the resolution. “If the Sudanese government does not back down, innocent men, women and children will starve to death.”
The sense of the Senate resolution also urges the government of Sudan to cease hostilities and negotiate an end to the conflict. It requests that civilians be allowed to leave the region voluntarily and offers support for ongoing efforts by the administration to facilitate humanitarian access to affected areas.
The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein last week for the atrocities in Darfur. The Hague is also seeking the arrest of president al-Bashir on charges of genocide.
Kerry, channeling his inner activist, urged countries with a vested interest in Sudan like China, the African Union and the Arab League to share the humanitarian urgency.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the testimony reminded him of similar hearings a few years ago over the growing conflict in Darfur. He wondered whether the same committee would hear about the current emergency for years without anything happening.
“We talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, but nothing happens,” Cardin said. “Until we change the way the Sudanese government conducts its security issues, there’s little hope that we won’t see a repeat of these disasters.”
Darfur, located in central Sudan, sat at the center of the conflict after the Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement attacked government targets in 2003. The groups accused Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, of oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs.
According to the United Nations, up to 300,000 people died from war, hunger and disease in the six-year conflict, though accurate figures waver.
Lyman, the U.S. envoy, said there is a growing realization in Khartoum that there is no military solution to the problem.
“I hope Omar al-Bashir knows there’s no easy out,” Kerry said. “There’s no way we’re not staying engaged in this. But it’s his choice. Their choice. [The country] will decide where they go.”