"Turn the lights on" to expose the actions of the Sudanese government, actor and activist George Clooney told reporters after meeting with President Obama on Tuesday.
Clooney visited the White House with human rights activist John Prendergast, who co-founded the Enough Project, to push the administration to ramp up diplomatic efforts to avoid another war in the troubled African country just five years after a peace agreement ended the last decades-long conflict.
The fear is that a planned Jan. 9, 2011 referendum on independence for the mostly black, Christian southern part of Sudan could provoke a new North-South conflict, due, in part, to a dispute over the oil-rich Abyei region in the south. Northern Sudan -- where the capital Khartoum is located -- is mostly Arab and Muslim. The leader of the South has reportedly stated that officials in the North are intentionally delaying preparations for the vote and said the region would go ahead with the referendum as scheduled.
"Right now, at this moment, there's an opportunity here to negotiate a peace treaty," Clooney said, allowing that it would be "complicated" and "difficult."
Clooney said he was impressed with how involved the Obama administration had been in Sudan "at the highest levels" and that it was important to act before it's too late, even suggesting that Google Earth use its satellite to put up live images confirming reports of government tanks and helicopters lining up on the border near Abyei.
"I think any time there is a danger of people being killed, we're too slow," Clooney said. "I think that no one would disagree with that. I don't think the UN would disagree with that."
He went on to say that he believed the Obama administration would like to be further down the line in negotiations.
"The difference is we were late in the Congo; we were late in El Salvador; we were late in Darfur; we were late in Rwanda. We've been late," he said. "The hope is that we can be there this time before and not have to just mop up the mess afterwards."
Clooney called on the international community to keep the pressure on the Sudanese government and on its President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who has been charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court, by continuing negotiations with the government and by offering carrots and some "pretty prickly sticks" including increased sanctions. He also said the United Nations needed a stronger mandate to act in the region.
Prendergrast said Obama had "evinced a very clear and deep knowledge about the details of the negotiations going on" in the Sudan and pledged that the administration would "do all it can."
Clooney, who was on his way to another meeting with Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), also visited Obama in February of 2009, early in his presidency, to ask the White House to appoint a special full-time envoy to Sudan. The White House appointed Gen. Scott Gration to the role, and Clooney said Tuesday that while he had faith in Gration's leadership, but that the general needed more support from the international community to be effective.