WASHINGTON: Actor and activist George Clooney said after meeting President Barack Obama Tuesday the world can prevent violence around southern Sudan’s independence vote, without any cost in money or lives.
"We have got 90 days to do this, it doesn’t cost a dime and it doesn’t cost any lives and no American troops. This is not a right or left issue," Clooney said after Oval Office talks with the president.
The Hollywood star also called at a meeting with reporters later for more diplomatic involvement from European nations, China, the biggest investor in Sudan’s rich oil stocks, and Egypt, the vast African country’s neighbor, to ensure January’s referendum goes ahead peacefully.
Clooney, who is just back from southern Sudan, said the international community has to mount a robust diplomatic effort, starting now, to be in with a chance of preventing Sudan plunging into a new cycle of violence over the vote on independence for the oil-rich south — something the government in Khartoum is firmly opposed to.
Southern Sudan fought a two-decade civil war against the north in which some 1.5 million people died either directly in conflict, or through disease and famine.
The war ended with a 2005 peace deal, which included a provision that the south would hold a referendum on whether to secede or remain part of the country.
Earlier Tuesday, Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir said he would not accept an alternative to unity despite his commitment to the peace deal.
Analysts — and Clooney and his Sudanese travel partner John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project which fights to end genocide — say the referendum, set for January 9, is expected to favor independence for the south.
"The people of south Sudan have been enslaved and have been sold and have been raped and slaughtered for generations and they earned the right to vote for their freedom in 2005," Clooney said.
"They believe they have the right, come January 9. They are going to vote in that way, it appears, and they seemed very resolute."
But he warned that the world should heed the history of the Sudanese government and guard against the possibility it would disrupt the vote.
"Left alone in a vacuum this government will act aggressively," the actor said after his meeting with Obama, who less than two weeks ago made his own impassioned plea for Sudan at a high-level meeting on Sudan’s future at the United Nations in New York.
"What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether people who have endured too much war move towards peace or slip backwards to bloodshed," Obama said on September 24.
"What happens in Sudan matters to all of sub-Saharan Africa and it matters to the world."
Clooney and Prendergast said the international response to what would be a devastating war in Sudan had been tepid, and called for tougher action against the Bashir government from European nations, as well as China and Egypt.
Bashir "is not spending his money in Sudanese pounds, it is in euros, it is in other forms, we need to find out where that money is and freeze it," Clooney said.
"Countries are hard to shame, but companies, you can shame," he said at a meeting with reporters at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Prendergast urged the United States to engage China and Egypt in the diplomatic effort to avert another war in Sudan, which, if it happened, would be "the largest conventional war in the world in 2011."
"It costs nothing to send a senior person to Beijing to meet with as high-level an official as he or she can get and say, ‘Let’s work on this together,’" he said.
China is the biggest player in Sudan’s oil industry, giving it enormous influence in Africa’s largest country.
During the long civil war, China continued to exploit Sudanese oil, and with the referendum looming Beijing "thinks it can secure its interests in Sudan militarily," said Prendergast.
"Unlike last time, this time, their assets will be the first to be targeted," he said.
Egypt "is also not jumping to get in on this, but the truth of the matter is they’re growing, they’re at the very end of the Nile and they need water," which Sudan can provide, said Clooney.
"It’s in the interest of Egypt and China to avoid war in Sudan," said the star who won an Oscar in 2006 for his role as a CIA agent in the oil industry thriller "Syriana."
"We were late going into Congo, Darfur and Rwanda, but we have an opportunity to be ahead of this," he said.