News your connection to The Boston Globe

Genocide games

In the summer of 2008, the world will turn its gaze to China and the Beijing Olympics. A growing number of activists want to make sure the shadow of Darfur, and China's complicity, are what the world remembers.

Sitting at the computer in the office of his Northampton home last month, Eric Reeves pushed the "send" button, intending to spread an idea -- a modest, but potentially powerful idea.

Reeves, a professor of literature at Smith College who has become one of the world's foremost experts on the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, has concluded that only China, as Sudan's biggest economic and diplomatic supporter and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can stop the slaughter that President Bush has called genocide (as many as 400,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2003, and more than 3 million others may face a similar fate). And China, says Reeves, can only be pressured to act by appealing to its sense of national pride and honor -- forcing Beijing to choose between its lucrative relationship with Khartoum and having its coveted games lumped in the collective consciousness with Nazi Germany's hosting of the Berlin games in 1936.

A United Nations plan to send in an armed force to protect humanitarian workers and stop the killing was sidetracked last year when the Khartoum regime refused to let them in, and China abstained from the vote. Most foreign aid workers have withdrawn from the area for lack of protection.

Sudan has weathered US and European sanctions for more than a decade, largely because China, along with several countries in the Muslim world, has shown no compunction in investing in Sudan. Buoyed by its oil exports, 70 percent of which go to China, Sudan's economy is humming along even as it is a pariah in the Western world.

Some human rights organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, are calling for a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Beijing next year, while other activists, including former Beatle Paul McCartney, call for boycotting Chinese products. Reeves is pushing what he considers a more realistic campaign to "brand" the 2008 Games the "Genocide Olympics," harnessing the energy of a frustrated, disheartened activist base.

"A boycott won't work, and it would be deeply divisive anyway," said Reeves. "It's time to begin shaming China. China's complicity in the Darfur genocide makes its Olympic slogan, 'One world, one dream,' ghastly in its irony. The US government is not going to do anything. The European Union is not going to lead either. It's time to take the effort private."

Reeves is not alone in believing that only China has the influence over the Khartoum regime to persuade it to accept a peacekeeping force and stop the killing. Karen Hirschfeld, the Sudan coordinator for Physicians for Human Rights, points out that while more than two-thirds of Sudan's crude exports go to China, that makes up only 10 percent of China's oil imports. In other words, Sudan needs China more than the other way around. "China does have this leverage," she said.

Robert Ross, a professor at Boston College who specializes in Chinese foreign policy, thinks a shaming campaign can have an impact. He doesn't accept the familiar argument that agitation makes China dig in its heels. "That's old thinking," he said. "The Chinese know there will be thousands of journalists in China for the Olympics, and they'll be writing stories about a lot of things other than the Olympics."

"The Chinese are working overtime to manage the Olympics," Ross said, "and managing Darfur is going to be part of it."

But there is less consensus among human rights activists that the prospect of being embarrassed by the linking of the Olympic Games to the genocide in Darfur has a realistic chance of forcing the Chinese to act.

Reeves acknowledges there is skepticism -- "contemptuous in some quarters," he allows. But he said the idea is gaining attention. Last week, the French presidential candidates raised the issue of Darfur and the Olympics at a Paris rally. Just as important, Reeves said, many Darfuris are enthusiastic backers of the shaming campaign, including Suleiman Jamous, the rebel coordinator for humanitarian aid who has been imprisoned for the last eight months.

"The Chinese have to see they have a stark choice," said Reeves. "Either they use their leverage to secure a peace support operation, or they will be the target of the biggest international shaming campaign in history."

. . .

The kind of branding campaign Reeves envisions, he says, would be "viral." Reeves sees untapped potential, especially at colleges and universities, across the globe. "Students are roaring to do something beyond petitions and selling green wristbands," he said.

He envisions students and activists demonstrating outside Chinese embassies around the world. He sees Web videos, screen savers, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, all bearing the same message: the Genocide Olympics. He points to the success of the American-led divestment campaign that recently saw Siemens suspend operations in Sudan and says there will be pressure campaigns on the corporate sponsors who are lining up deals to associate their products or corporations with the Beijing games.

Boycotting Olympic games has considerable precedent. The United States and more than 50 other countries stayed away from the 1980 Moscow games, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets retaliated, boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles games with 14 other countries. Between 1964 and 1992, South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its apartheid laws. In 1976, some 25 African nations boycotted the Montreal games when the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand after its national rugby team played in South Africa.

But since the end of the Cold War it has become harder to build coalitions along ideological lines, and the IOC and various national Olympic committees, including the US Olympic Committee, subscribe to the notion that awarding the games can lead to reforms in autocratic regimes. The IOC points to Moscow and Seoul, where reforms followed the Olympics.

For its part, China skipped the games for 32 years, returning to the Olympic fold in 1984. It took Beijing three tries to land the games, the country's domestic human rights record being cited by many who opposed its hosting of the Olympics.

John Shattuck, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, was point man on human rights in China in 1993 and witnessed the international effort to deny China the 1996 Olympics. But he said that effort had as much to do with other nations' self-interest in seeking the games as it did with concern for human rights. Shattuck, who is now CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, said China is more susceptible to international pressure than it was a decade ago.

Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director for Amnesty International, says China's economic clout insulates it from boycott pressure. "No one is going to boycott China," he said. "You're not going to get the US government to boycott China."

Not only is a successful, widespread boycott of the Beijing games unlikely, said Reeves, it would be too divisive to be productive. "We've got to change the international diplomatic dynamic," he said.

To that end, Reeves last month sent out an open letter to Darfur advocates and activists. In it, he said "the first order of business" was to "fashion creative means for translating key talking points and broader analyses into a variety of languages and exporting them to as many countries as possible." Those talking points include China's failure to support last August's UN resolution to send a peacekeeping mission into Darfur, China's supply of weapons used by the Khartoum regime, and China's refusal to speak out against atrocities throughout Sudan.

Reeves's open letter has been translated into six languages so far, including Chinese and Arabic, and another half-dozen translations are in the works. A new website is in development, as are agreements to secure the services of a human-rights figure to serve as campaign director and an NBA star to serve as a spokesman. (The NBA is enormously popular in China, especially since Yao Ming has become one of the league's stars.)

"If this is going to be successful, it's got to be seen as international in character," he said. "It certainly can't be seen as American or Western."

John O'Shea, the CEO of GOAL, an Ireland-based aid agency that is among those most active in Darfur, agrees with Reeves's analysis that China is the best and only lever on the Khartoum regime. And he supports Reeves's idea to brand the Beijing games the Genocide Olympics. But O'Shea believes that boycotting the Olympics is the only action that will make China sit up and listen.

In an interview, O'Shea said he would soon ask the Irish government to consider boycotting the games. He said he would also try to get smaller countries in which GOAL is active, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Sierra Leone, to consider a boycott. O'Shea has proved persuasive with the Irish government in the past, and even if he can't persuade these countries to boycott the games, he promises to be part of the shaming campaign that Reeves is trying to inspire.

"Which is more important?" O'Shea asked. "The Olympic games taking place for the greater glory of China, or the lives of 3 million people?"

Kevin Cullen, a projects reporter at the Globe, can be reached at