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Spielberg Drops Out As Beijing Olympics Adviser Over Darfur

DAVE SKRETTA   02/12/08 08:23 PM ET   AP

Steven Spielberg

NEW YORK — Film director Steven Spielberg and actress Mia Farrow joined activists worldwide Tuesday in using the Olympics as a backdrop to address human rights concerns, urging Beijing to exert political leverage on Sudan's government to help end the crisis in Darfur.

Spielberg announced he would no longer act as an artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies, saying he could not reconcile working on the Olympics while China and other nations were not doing enough to ease the suffering.

"Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more," Spielberg said in a statement. "China's economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change."

Farrow joined former Olympic swimmers Shannon Shakespeare and Nikki Dryden in delivering an open letter addressed to Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Chinese Mission to the United Nations, condemning Beijing's support of the Sudanese government.

The letter was part of a "Global Day of Action" that focused on Darfur, where more than 200,000 have died and an estimated 2.5 million have been displaced since 2003.

"We are all aware of the tremendous potential for China to help bring an end to the conflict in Darfur," said the letter, signed by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, celebrities and 13 former Olympians.

Farrow suggested China use its influence to disarm the janjaweed, the government-backed Arab militia, demand the Khartoum regime halt bombings and ground attacks on civilians, and use its economic clout to force the government to ensure safety for U.N. peacekeepers.

China buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports. In turn, China sells weapons to the Sudanese government and has defended Khartoum in the U.N. Security Council.

"How can Beijing host the Olympic Games at home and underwrite genocide?" said Farrow, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, shivering in freezing weather outside the Chinese Mission. "Time is running out for the people of Darfur."

Another letter signed by 120 lawmakers also called on Hu to use his "significant influence" to help with peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.

Olympic speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek, who co-founded the Team Darfur athletes coalition, joined activists in Washington. Rallies also were scheduled for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Chicago and for 10 other countries, including France, Germany and Egypt.

Farrow and several humanitarian groups had been critical of Spielberg for continuing to work on the games, even as the Sudanese military said it bombed three towns in West Darfur last week.

Spielberg, who sent a letter to Hu in April urging China to take a stronger stance against Sudan, still hopes to attend the Olympics. But he said his conscience is pointing him toward spending his time and energy on the relief effort instead of the ceremonies.

"The situation has never been more precarious," he said. "While China's representatives have conveyed to me that they are working to end the terrible tragedy in Darfur, the grim realities of the suffering continue unabated."

Several nations have put their athletes in a precarious position if they feel compelled to use the games as a platform for discussing Darfur.

On Monday, the British Olympic Association acknowledged that its team agreement appeared to go beyond rules laid out by the International Olympic Committee barring any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at an Olympic venue or area.

The U.S. Olympic Committee plans to ask American athletes to comply with IOC rules, but won't impose additional measures.

"We're very concerned about the image of the Olympics being sullied by a host nation that can and should do more to stop the genocide," said Dryden, who competed for her native Canada in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. "China has as its theme for this summer's Olympic Games, 'One world, one dream.' Darfur should not be excluded from that dream."

Beijing has been sensitive to criticism that might tarnish its staging of the Aug. 8-24 Olympics. In bidding for the games in 2001, China promised IOC members that the Olympics would lead to an improved climate for human rights.

Li Zhanjun, director of the media center for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, said his office would comment later on the Darfur accusations made by Farrow and the former Olympians and Spielberg pulling out.

In the past, Beijing has highlighted its own efforts to ameliorate the situation in Darfur, including the dispatch of engineering troops to prepare for the arrival of an African Union-U.N. peacekeeping force, and says its economic ties are helping to reduce conflict by alleviating poverty.

Jill Savitt, director of the activist group Dream for Darfur, conceded that the Chinese government has taken modest steps to ease the suffering

"The Olympics are China's debut on the world stage, and Beijing wants the Olympics to go well," Savitt said. "Unless China acts now to resolve the crisis in Darfur, the Beijing Games will best be remembered as the genocide Olympics."

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Filed by Nicholas Sabloff  |