Clooney returns to the U.N. with Darfur advocates

Times Staff Writer

When George Clooney realized that most Americans already recognized the significance of his adopted cause -- resolving the conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan -- he decided to take his show on the road. He invited a few other actors and athletes to travel to China and Egypt, two countries that have clout with Sudan's government, to see whether celebrities could do anything that politicians and diplomats couldn't.

On Friday, Clooney came to the United Nations with actor Don Cheadle, who starred in "Hotel Rwanda," speed skater and Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek and Kenyan marathon champion Tegla Loroupe to discuss the results with outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"The U.N. isn't going to go in guns blazing into a sovereign nation," Clooney said, so he hoped his group could use its star power to focus attention on possible solutions and help break the stalemate. That led them to Egypt, which has been an important mediator in the Sudanese conflict.

Some progress was made, they said, by putting the focus on the plight of the people. Clooney said the foreign minister of Egypt and a senior Foreign Ministry official in China told him they could play a role in brokering an accord between rebels and the Sudanese government.

China is now willing to talk publicly about its "grave concern" for Darfur. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit offered to send doctors and aid workers to replace Western humanitarian groups that have been driven out, and Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, said she would visit a camp for Darfur refugees n Chad.

"It's a drop in the bucket," Clooney said in an interview. "But it is significant, coming from an Arab country that has the ear of Khartoum," Sudan's capital, he said. Clooney addressed the U.N. Security Council about Darfur in September, one of the first celebrities to gain an audience despite the dozens of stars acting as U.N. goodwill ambassadors for various causes.

Darfur is at a "tipping point," he told them. After three years of conflict that has caused more than 200,000 deaths and displaced 2.5 million people in western Sudan, government-backed militias are still attacking civilians and aid agencies are under siege.

The council authorized a U.N. peacekeeping force to stabilize the region, but Khartoum has refused to accept it. China, Russia and Qatar have sided with the Sudanese government.

In China, the Clooney delegation met with an assistant foreign minister, He Yafei, and talked about the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"There are banners hanging all over Beijing with the Olympic slogan, "One world, One Dream," said Cheek, the skater who donated his gold medal award and $40,000 to the people of Darfur. "Our message to the government was that when you identify yourself with this Olympic ideal that there is a shared humanity, it is very hard to turn a blind eye to a humanitarian crisis."

Between the lines is a hint of an Olympic boycott. Cheek said he preferred diplomacy and was not personally pushing a boycott at this point.

"I'm keeping my options open," he said. "But how long can you be patient?"

Cheadle, who made a documentary on Darfur last year and is working on a film about the region, said the group was "letting the world know it is important to China and to let Sudan hear that echoed back."

But their visit is not echoing in China. The Foreign Ministry announced the visit of Clooney and company two days after they had left. The state-run newspaper printed a five-sentence article, and few ordinary Chinese knew they had been there.

"He was totally off the radar," said Hong Huang, one of China's most prominent media mavens and bloggers.

Clooney said they had intentionally kept the trip under wraps. "I didn't want them on the defensive, and I didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize the Egypt trip," he said.

The group counted the four-day mission a small success, a first step in a long diplomatic journey.

"I am a marathon runner and I know that it is important to keep going," Loroupe said.

Above all, Clooney said, they wanted to focus attention and action on the people who were suffering, not the political process.

"There will come a time when it's all sorted out and justice is handed down, and the question then will be asked: Where did the nations of these United Nations stand -- on the right side of history or on inaction?"

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