The World from The Hill: Sudan Caucus cranks up pressure ahead of crucial vote

Celebrity activists are making the rounds in Washington to cast light on a precarious upcoming election in Sudan, but a passionate contingent in Congress has been working behind the scenes to urge the administration to do all it can to help keep the peace.

Wracked by more than two decades of bloody civil war between the Muslim north and Christian south, Sudan's 2005 peace agreement included a January 2011 referendum to give Southern Sudan the opportunity to split from the north. But numerous obstacles accompany the prospect of dividing the nation in two, including the allocation of resources from the oil-rich south.

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A widespread fear is the referendum could send the country spiraling back into conflict that could impact the entire region.

Actor George Clooney, who has embraced the role of activist by bringing attention to the humanitarian plight in Sudan since 2006, met Tuesday with President Obama to share concerns about the latest challenge facing the war-torn nation.

"At a time that is one of the most politicized times ever, this is something that everyone agrees on: If there's some way to get ahead of this and stop it before it happens, we better," Clooney said after his meeting with the president.

Various Sudan advocacy groups under the umbrella Sudan Now have launched a “100 Days of Action for Sudan" in the run-up to the referendum, urging the Obama administration to "hold the governments of Sudan and South Sudan and all other parties accountable for their commitments and actions, imposing and multilateralizing consequences for negative behavior and supporting justice and accountability including ICC warrants." The International Criminal Court has a warrant out for Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, a move supported in a bill introduced last year by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) with 29 co-sponsors and currently in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Clooney is a spokesman for the Sudan Now campaign, and other actors such as Matt Damon and Don Cheadle helped turn attention to Darfur, but the African nation is far from a celebucause. On Capitol Hill, 73 Democrats and 17 Republicans are working to bring attention to the region's challenges as members of the Sudan Caucus.

The co-chairmen of the caucus are Reps. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), Mike McCaul (R-Texas), Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.). The quartet spearheaded a bipartisan April letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in April expressing concern about Sudan's first national election in nearly 25 years, as well as continuing violence against refugees from the Darfur genocide.

That was followed on Sept. 23 by a letter to Obama that included Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) among the signatories, encouraging "the Administration to take additional steps to define its strategy on Sudan, including delineating benchmarks, timelines, and commitments to support both the South and Abyei referenda and post referenda scenarios." McCaul's office said the White House has not yet responded.

In separate interviews with The Hill, Capuano and McCaul expressed deep concern about developments in Sudan and the potential for devastating regional instability, including an eruption of violence in the wake of the January referendum.

"I want to keep the administration's eye on the ball," Capuano said, adding that he thought the White House understands the importance of the issue. "It will become a major issue if this thing goes the wrong way."

Just before Congress left for the campaign recess, the House approved by voice vote Capuano's sense of the House "on the importance of the full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to help ensure peace and stability in Sudan during and after mandated referenda." The resolution had 68 bipartisan co-sponsors; the original co-sponsors were the Sudan Caucus co-chairmen.

Last year, McCaul offered an amendment directing "the President to develop and transmit to the appropriate congressional committees a comprehensive interagency strategy and implementation plan to address the ongoing crisis in Sudan." It was unanimously adopted on roll call vote, and McCaul said the administration moved a strategy last October and is due to present another proposal in the next month.

"They really haven't done enough, in my view," McCaul said. "They provide a lot of carrots but really no sticks."

The administration's strategy should include sanctions on Northern Sudan if they don't comply with the election results, he said.

A group of Catholic bishops from Southern Sudan met with members of Congress a month ago to share their fears about corruption tainting the legitimacy of the upcoming vote, as well as "the potential for violence in region if the vote doesn't go the way the North wants it to," McCaul said.

"You could have a Darfur-type situation happening all over again with genocide," he stressed.

Ten years ago, Capuano said, many people didn't know where Darfur is. The congressman's interest in Sudan began when he was introduced to a man who had been bought and sold into slavery in the country. That was "pretty traumatic," he said, and it piqued his interest in the region's human rights woes and movements to get the public engaged in the cause.

"I think we should all be outraged," he said. "It might be very easy to get people engaged if there's a regional war. That would not be a good thing."

Both lawmakers are concerned at how fresh conflict could reverberate across the world. "It's not just a disaster for the people of the region," Capuano said. "... U.S. interests will be impacted."

McCaul said the election is "not only a human rights issue but a national-security issue as well." With Sudan having a "history" of harboring terrorists, he said, further instability could lead to the country, especially with its proximity to Yemen and Somalia, "becoming a safe haven for terrorists."

The Republican congressman said he applauded Clooney for "using his pulpit to raise awareness of the issue ... and calling it to the administration's attention."

Capuano said congressional advocates are working toward a more democratic Sudan with a steadfast focus on human rights.

"We either fight for it or we just give up," he said.