Spielberg, luminaries press Olympic China over Darfur

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US filmmaker Steven Spielberg abandoned his role in the Beijing Olympics and a host of prominent figures accused China of not doing enough to press its ally Sudan to end devastating violence in Darfur.

"Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering," Spielberg said in a statement Tuesday.

"I have decided to formally announce the end of my involvement as one of the overseas artistic advisors to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games."

Separately, Nobel Prize winners and Olympic athletes urged China's President Hu Jintao to pressure Sudan to end atrocities in Darfur, as attention turns to this summer's games.

"As the primary economic, military and political partner of the government of Sudan, and as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China has both the opportunity and the responsibility to contribute to a just peace in Darfur," they said in a joint letter.

"Ongoing failure to rise to this responsibility amounts, in our view, to support for a government that continues to carry out atrocities against its own people," the letter read.

The 25 signatories included South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi -- both Nobel Peace Prize winners -- along with actresses Mia Farrow and Emma Thompson, African music legend Hugh Masekela, and athletes, writers, actors and political figures from around the world.

The United Nations estimates some 200,000 people have died in the western Sudanese region from the combined effects of war, famine and disease since 2003, when a civil conflict erupted pitting government-backed Arab militias against non-Arab ethnic groups.

Pro-government Janjaweed militia began fierce retaliation after rebels took up arms to fight for a bigger share of the country's resources.

China's ties with Khartoum have been regarded as a sticking point in international efforts to pressure the Sudanese government to ease the crisis.

"Rape and sexual violence have been and continue to be used as weapons of war against untold numbers of girls and women" in Darfur, said the letter to Hu, released by the Save Darfur Coalition campaign group.

"The government of Sudan has also been involved in the forced relocation of people from refugee and internally displaced peoples camps. Without homes to return to, those displaced are left vulnerable to further attack."

The letter urged China to support the deployment of an approved joint UN-African Union force to secure the region, which Khartoum is accused of blocking.

Spielberg's statement said: "I have made repeated efforts to encourage the Chinese government to use its unique influence to bring safety and stability to the Darfur region."

As an artistic adviser, Spielberg said he had been working with artists including the Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

"My conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual," he said, however.

New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said his move should encourage other outsiders to apply pressure for human rights reforms in China itself, saying the government was cracking down on dissent ahead of the Olympics.

"Olympic corporate sponsors are putting their reputations at risk unless they work to convince the Chinese government to uphold the human rights pledges it made to bring the games to Beijing," said HRW spokeswoman Minky Worden.

"Human rights are under attack in China, and Olympic sponsors should use their considerable leverage to persuade Beijing to change policy," she added, in a statement Tuesday.

But even as celebrities and activists turned up the heat over Darfur, advertising insiders said the Beijing Games have drawn unprecedented interest from corporate entities eager for access to Chinese consumers.

Not counting the long-term major partners of the International Olympic Committee, more than 50 Chinese and foreign companies have signed on for commercial deals with the Beijing Olympic organising committee either as a partners, sponsors or suppliers.

"The scale is totally different from previous Olympic Games. Everybody is waiting for TV audiences, especially in China, breaking records. We will see figures we've never seen before," said Pierre Justo, Beijing-based managing director of sports research firm TNS Sports Asia.