Darfur groups pin high hopes on Obama team

WASHINGTON – Human rights activists waging a high-profile campaign to end the violence in Sudan's western Darfur region are pushing President-elect Barack Obama and his team to re-energize efforts to end the nearly six-year conflict.

Even before Obama takes office next month, advocates want members of the incoming administration — some of whom have intense and personal interests in the issue — to make Darfur a top foreign policy and national security priority and begin identifying top officials to concentrate on the crisis starting on Jan. 20.

The activists believe Obama, America's first black president, is well positioned to ride the wave of popularity and goodwill his election has sparked to rally the world to their Darfur cause, which has struggled for attention amid other overseas dilemmas and the financial meltdown despite continued fighting that has claimed up to 300,000 lives.

"There is a new window of opportunity," said Jerry Fowler, director of the Save Darfur Coalition, an umbrella group of 180 organizations that claim 130 million members and supporters. "We want them to take advantage of this incredible outpouring of enthusiasm in the rest of the world to the election and launch a sustained peace process to end this."

Coalition members have put forward a six-point proposal they want to see the Obama team initiate now.

It calls for the identification of a senior-level official to handle the Darfur portfolio, creation of a State Department "cell" to monitor the situation full-time, and the appointment of two special envoys: one to deal with Darfur and the other to deal with the faltering peace deal that ended Sudan's long-running North-South civil war.

They also want the new administration to work with the U.N. to expand an existing arms embargo and enforce a ban on offensive military flights over Darfur by the Sudanese.

The Obama camp has not addressed the specific proposals but has given them a general endorsement.

"We welcome these recommendations," said Brooke Anderson, a national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team. "President-elect Obama has repeatedly underscored his commitment to more effective action to end the genocide in Darfur."

During the campaign, Obama made numerous impassioned references to Darfur.

"We can't say 'never again' and then allow it to happen again," he said in one video message to supporters. "As president of the United States, I don't intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter."

And Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. ambassador-choice Susan Rice and national security adviser-pick Gen. James Jones also have spoken out before and during the campaign about the need to do more in Darfur.

In addition, the inclusion of Obama adviser and genocide expert Samantha Power on the State Department transition team despite her Democratic primary dustup with then-candidate Clinton has raised hopes.

"There has been a lot chatter about this being a team of rivals but the one thing they have been unified on has been the need to end the genocide in Darfur," Fowler said. "They have all been strong advocates for ending this."

The Bush administration made Darfur, which it labeled a "genocide" in 2004, a high priority on its Africa agenda, but has frustrated activists by not appointing more senior envoys to deal with it or persuading other nations to go along with sweeping sanctions against the government in Khartoum, which is widely blamed for much of the turmoil.

Just this week, Bush himself lamented the pace of U.N. efforts to end the killings in Darfur, delivering strong words after meeting with a victim of the violence who was hidden by a red, black and white sheath for her safety. Bush backs a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force in Darfur, which has struggled for viability with a lack of troops and transport.

And the White House on Thursday released a fact sheet asserting that Bush is "leading the global response to the crisis in Darfur" and noting that the administration has given more than $5 billion in assistance to Sudan since 2005 and hundreds of millions of dollars to support the peacekeeping force.

However, many have been disappointed that Bush has not done more and by his decision not to use the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to press China — a main Sudanese government ally — harder on the Darfur issue.

"Unfortunately, the Bush administration's words have not been matched by deeds," Sen. Clinton said during her campaign. "Its actions have been ad hoc and inconsistent."

And Susan Rice, the State Department's top Africa diplomat during President Bill Clinton's administration, has gone on the record with support for Congress authorizing the use of force to end the Darfur genocide.