Jewish Darfur activists see White House moving in right direction


WASHINGTON (JTA) — While some activists have been disgruntled in recent weeks by the Obama administration’s Darfur policy, two top Jewish leaders on the issue believe the White House is moving in the right direction.

The president of the American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger, and the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein, say the administration has the correct goals in its sights, even if there appears to be some disagreement on how exactly to reach them.

Messinger did release a statement last week criticizing the administration’s “contradictory signals” on Darfur after the Obama administration’s Sudan envoy, Scott Gration, told reporters that the Sudanese government was no longer engaged in a “coordinated” campaign of genocide and saying that “what we see is the remnants of genocide.”

Two days earlier the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, had said that Sudan was committing genocide.

The State Department has since reaffirmed that it believes a genocide is still taking place. But Messinger says the mixed signals concern her because they draw attention from the humanitarian situation in the region.

“It was not helpful,” she said, and the kind of thing that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir “loves” because “he can say the Americans don’t even agree. From our point of view, that’s not where we want to keep the focus.”

Messinger says Darfur activists want to see the administration “more focused on speaking with one voice. We don’t want them to downplay the urgency.”

Bashir expelled 13 international aid groups in March, and activists say that has left more than 1 million people without access to food aid and 1.5 million without medical care.

Amid reports that Gration has suggested relaxing sanctions as a carrot to win Sudanese government cooperation, some Darfur activists have worried recently that the administration has not moved quickly enough to put a clear policy in place.

Messinger says she would like to see exactly what the United States might offer to Sudan before judging the plan, but says she is encouraged that the administration is focusing not just on the humanitarian situation but on ensuring that the comprehensive peace agreement achieved earlier this decade between the north and south regions of the country remains intact.

“They recognize that the future of Darfur is wrapped up in the future of Sudan,” she said. “If we let that agreement fall apart, it will be three times worse than it is now.”

The agreement, signed in 2005, ended a more than two-decade civil war but set up an interim period, due to expire in 18 months, that culminates in a vote on secession by the southern region. Key territorial issues and other disputes that would factor into any secession have not been addressed.

Saperstein echoes Messinger, noting that while there does appear to be a disagreement within the administration on “tactics,” he is reassured that everyone is on the same page on objectives — particularly stressing the importance of the north-south agreement.

He says that even if, as Gration said, there has been a decline in killing, “We’ve been down this road before.”

“Whether it’s a lull or a permanent shift remains to be seen,” he said.


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