Thursday, January 1, 2009

Four years ago, Mark Hanis “didn’t know if the Janjaweed militia was a person, place or thing.” Today, the bearded 26-year-old heads the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net), a savvy Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting genocide, particularly in Sudan.

Although he didn’t learn about the Darfur region of Sudan until his senior year at Swarthmore College, Mr. Hanis’ ties to genocide run deep. Four of his grandparents are Holocaust survivors. He grew up in a Jewish enclave in Quito, Ecuador, where everyone in his synagogue was either “a Holocaust survivor or a descendent of a Holocaust survivor.”

He even remembers those with numbers tattooed on their arms who told him, “Never, ever, let it happen again.”

So, when he first heard about Darfur while flipping through the sports section of a newspaper, “it wasn’t ‘should I do something, or should I not do something?’ It was ‘What can I do?’” he says.

During his last semester at Swarthmore in the fall of 2004, Mr. Hanis and a few friends launched the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net) to raise money for peacekeepers in Sudan. After that, he moved to Washington, grew a beard “to be taken seriously,” and began promoting GI-Net from a borrowed office near the White House.

Today, GI-Net is a full-blown charity with an edgy presence on Capitol Hill and a single driving question: “Why does the world’s most powerful country continuously fail at stopping genocide?”

Mr. Hanis and his friends think they have the answer: “There is zero political cost to inaction in genocide.”

But since summer 2006, GI-Net has attempted to create political consequences for members of Congress who don’t include Darfur on their list of priorities.

The group’s tactic of choice: a Web site called that grades members of Congress on their Darfur voting record. Not long after creating the site, Mr. Hanis and his friends began answering calls from members asking for tips on how they could improve their record. GI-Net would recommend sponsoring a bill or supporting existing legislation.

According to Mr. Hanis, 39 senators have improved from F’s and D’s to A’s, B’s, and C’s since the Web site went live. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, started with the lowest grade and jumped to a B by the end of 2007 for supporting the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, which now gives state and local governments the ability to divest in companies with an interest in Sudan.

House members weren’t far behind. Republican Reps. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia and Michael McCaul of Texas received “most improved” status for progressing from D’s in August 2006 to A’s in January 2008 by supporting similar legislation. Mr. McCaul’s office saidthat he credits GI-Net in part for his increased concern for Darfur.

Targeting the executive side, GI-Net is trying to make Darfur a priority for the next president by collecting a million postcards to send to Barack Obama before he takes office.

GI-Net’s Web site highlights Cabinet nominees Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and Susan Rice. Mrs. Clinton, the secretary of state-designate, co-sponsored the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006, and Mrs. Rice has been outspoken about Darfur and promises to make it a priority as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The Darfur war began in 2003 in western Sudan and mainly pits the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, a militia group of Arab nomadic tribes, against a variety of rebel groups recruited primarily from the non-Arab farming tribes.

The Sudanese government and Janjaweed have been widely accused of mass killings and rapes and of engineering famines in the rebel areas. Estimates of the death toll by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations range from 200,000 to a million, with the U.S. Holocaust Museum saying that 100,000 people are being killed in Darfur every year.

Sudanese President Omar Bashir had 10 war-crimes charges filed against him in July at the International Criminal Court in The Hague - three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and two of murder. An international arrest warrant could come soon.

Along with putting pressure on government leaders, GI-Net has tried to turn Darfur into a “hot-button” issue for the younger generation as well, by encouraging high school and college students to start STAND (Students Taking Action Now, Darfur) chapters at their schools. Since merging with GI-Net in 2006, STAND has grown to include 1,000 chapters in high schools and universities in 25 countries, and its members are finding creative ways to raise support.

For instance, this past June, five cross-country runners from East High School in Wichita, Kan., along with their coach and four college students, organized a 1,300-mile relay from Wichita to Washington. Relay leader Matt Heck, 18, first learned about the genocide when a friend started a chapter of STAND at the high school.

“I didn’t realize exactly what it meant,” the soft-spoken teen said, “but I began to make the connection to the Holocaust.”

After running 13 miles a day for two weeks, Mr. Heck said he was “very happy to have it over with.” He said he was also happy when the team received $25,000 in donations for Darfur and when Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, recognized them at the finish line.

For Mr. Hanis, fighting genocide is about politics and activism, but it’s also about religion.

“In Judaism, there’s a strong commandment to repair the world,” he explained. “There’s a very strong charge to help others.”

Being Jewish makes it all the more personal.

“Can you imagine during World War II, during the Holocaust, Americans hearing about the atrocities and simply responding to the Jews being gassed in the concentration camps by giving them rice and medicine and blankets, and wiping their hands and saying, ‘I did my part’?” Mr. Hanis asked.

“In Darfur, we’re throwing bags of rice in the face of genocide … we need to stop treating genocide like a humanitarian crisis, and start treating it like a security crisis,” he said.

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