Companies in Olympics Can't Stay Silent on China's Role in Darfur

VIEWPOINT: If Marketers Reap Benefits of Sponsorship, Aren't They Obligated to Uphold Games' Values?

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What will it mean for the brands of the Olympic corporate sponsors -- brands such as Coke, Visa and McDonald's -- if the 2008 Beijing Games are remembered as the "Genocide Olympics"?

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Jill Savitt, executive director of Dream for Darfur

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That is a question that has become more urgent since Steven Spielberg resigned, on Feb. 12, as an artistic director of the Beijing Olympics. In his eloquent statement, Mr. Spielberg said: "The situation in Darfur continues to worsen, and the violence continues to accelerate. With this in mind, I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual. ... 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."

The same day, nine Nobel laureates -- including Bishop Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel -- joined more than a dozen Olympic athletes in an open letter to President Hu of China. Those leaders said: "Given the severity of the crisis in Darfur and the nature of the China-Sudan relationship, we are calling for more serious action by your government in support of the full, immediate and unimpeded deployment of UNAMID." (UNAMID is the protection force of 26,000 troops authorized by U.N. Resolution 1769 last July.)

Mr. Spielberg and the Nobel Prize winners, in writing their letters, refer to what we believe is China's well-documented complicity in the Darfur genocide. China has protected Khartoum at the U.N. Security Council while selling arms to the Sudanese government and paying for the killing campaign through the purchase of massive quantities of oil. China, quite simply, underwrites this financially and allows it to continue diplomatically.

In the face of the Olympic host's complicity, sponsors have been deathly silent.

It is curious, even ironic, to note that Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Tutu and the others took brave, public stands that embody Olympic values, while companies such as Coca-Cola, General Electric, Visa and McDonald's -- which have paid millions upon millions of dollars to wrap themselves in these ideals -- have done nothing.

And yet, if Olympic corporate sponsors are to receive the benefits of association with Olympic values, aren't they also obligated to uphold and advance those Olympic values? This is especially true for corporations that aggressively market themselves as "corporate citizens."

Consistent with the intense corporate interest in results, Olympic sponsors should note that such actions have an effect. The result of Mr. Spielberg's public gesture has been unambiguous: China was forced to respond. One week after Mr. Spielberg's resignation, Beijing announced it would send its highest-level envoy on his fourth trip to Sudan. The Associated Press reported new engagement by China in the Darfur matter. For Darfur advocates, the public linking of China, Darfur and the Olympics has proven to be the lone point of leverage with Beijing and has caused China to take helpful steps to press Khartoum to resolve the crisis.

When asked why corporations have not made any public statements, spokespeople have said that the Darfur situation falls outside their portfolio -- that it is a job best handled by the United Nations. We should read Mr. Spielberg's words closely: "I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual."

Olympic corporate sponsors have unique leverage right now, leverage that could provide a turning point in the Darfur crisis -- but only if they are willing to uphold the values they profess to support. The most helpful step would be for corporate sponsors to make public statements, either individually or as a group, calling publicly on Beijing to use its influence with Khartoum to make sure there is adequate and verifiable security on the ground in Darfur immediately -- and certainly before the games begin. The Nobel Prize winners' letter would be a good model for tone and language.

As for the U.N., Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has stated on numerous occasions that he wants to see the full protection force deployed in Darfur immediately. Corporate sponsors could, at a minimum, publicly support the Secretary General in this call. China's diplomatic protection of Khartoum at the U.N. has been the chief obstacle to the force deployment. By echoing Mr. Ban's calls for action, sponsors would send Beijing an important message.

Corporate spokespeople also have said the Olympics should not be politicized. This claim seems disingenuous in the case of the Beijing Games since China has used the Olympics as a blunt political tool going back 50 years to exclude Taiwan and Taiwanese athletes. China also joined the 1980 boycott of the Olympics.

No company -- or country -- should withdraw from or boycott the games. But corporations can raise their voices, and in doing so can associate themselves with character of Mr. Spielberg and the Nobel Prize winners.

In their silence, Olympic corporate sponsors align themselves with China's efforts to position itself in glowing terms on the world stage without regard to its role in mass slaughter or massive human-rights abuses. It certainly makes the Olympic rings, plastered on so many TV screens and billboards, seem hollow.

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Jill Savitt is the executive director of Dream for Darfur (dreamfordarfur.org), an advocacy group based in New York.
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