George Clooney would like to bring a bit of Hollywood to one of the most remote and tense regions in Africa. Not red carpets and swag bags but the cold, intrusive, constant eye of a camera.
"You can go on Google Earth and Google my house," said the actor. "I thought, if that's the way it is and they're gonna be able to Google my house, then people who are committing war crimes, specifically the government of Sudan, should be able to enjoy the same level of celebrity that I do. These people are public figures, and we're gonna take their pictures."
Clooney is spearheading an effort to deploy commercial satellites to monitor the border between northern and southern Sudan as the country faces a referendum starting Sunday that is likely to split it in two. Should fighting break out, his wildly ambitious goal — the culmination of his years of engagement with the war-torn country — is to do no less than prevent genocide.
The Satellite Sentinel Project is a collaboration among Not on Our Watch (the human rights organization Clooney co-founded), the Enough Project (an anti-genocide group), the United Nations, Harvard University, Google and Trellon, a company that builds websites. On the project's site, http://www.satsentinel.org, anyone will be able to see high-resolution images of the 1,250-mile border. If violence breaks out, the site's backers hope its photographic evidence will put pressure on the U.N. Security Council or other countries to intervene.
Not on Our Watch, which Clooney founded with actors Don Cheadle, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon plus producer Jerry Weintraub and former Clinton State Department official David Pressman, provided the project's $650,000 in startup funds.
"We have the ability to create deterrence," said Clooney, now on his seventh trip to Sudan and its bordering nation of Chad. "You might not want to put tanks, helicopters or planes on the ground or in these border regions, 'cause we're watching."
More than 2 million people died in Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war, and sporadic fighting has continued since then between the lighter-skinned Sudanese Arabs in the north who want Islamic law and the darker-skinned Africans of the semiautonomous south. President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, based in Khartoum in the north, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from the violence. If southern Sudanese, who are largely Christian and animist, vote to secede from the north, the south would take with it about 80% of Sudan's oil output, a vexing problem for Bashir.
Clooney first visited Sudan in 2006 and filmed a documentary there with his father, broadcast journalist Nick Clooney. Later that year, the actor addressed the U.N. Security Council about the issue and traveled to China and Egypt with Cheadle to try to persuade officials there to use their ties with Sudan's government to help stop the violence.
"George keeps showing up," said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, who has traveled with Clooney in Sudan. "He's a very serious and committed analyst. He's gone to remote locations. He's put himself at extreme risk. He stays in mud huts and straw huts, he gets sick because of the sanitation."
Clooney's pleas for peace in Sudan have taken him from the White House, where he met with President Obama a month after his inauguration, to remote border villages. In one attempt to persuade a rebel leader to attend a peace conference, the actor donated money to his father's shoe store. (It didn't work.)
For someone who leads the peculiar life of a celebrity, Clooney can find a rare anonymity in Sudan.
"It's kind of calm for him," said Prendergast. "When we go to New York and L.A., they're all over him. But you go out to a village or refugee camp, and he's just some aid worker or human rights analyst who shows up."
Clooney's idea for the Satellite Sentinel Project began to take shape on a trip to Sudan in October. After Not On Our Watch provided the start-up money, other organizations and companies quickly joined the partnership in time for its launch in late December.
"This is George Clooney's brainchild, and the scope of it is unprecedented," said David Yanagizawa-Drott, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who will be evaluating the program's results for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. "It takes state-of-the-art technology and makes human rights documentation public and visual in near real time. This is not just postmortem documentation of a conflict. This is saying, before a potential civil war breaks out, we will document it."
Clooney is well aware that geopolitical activism by Hollywood figures is often met with cynicism, if not outright scorn, but he's undeterred.
"The people who roll their eyes, most of those people don't know anything," he said. "I have rebel leaders on my speed dial. I've spent time with the president of Chad, of south Sudan. I've been to Khartoum. I know most of the factions personally. So I have at least a rudimentary understanding of what's going on, which is more than most. If that means I'm able to get in the mix and to bring attention to people who really know what they're doing, then I'm doing my job."
Still, Clooney has been circumspect about his work in the region, calling his efforts "the greatest failure of my life" in an interview with Britain's the Sun newspaper last September.
"Nothing's really changed," he said this week. "When 300,000 innocent civilians are systematically raped and murdered, then it's a failure on every level. I'm old-fashioned. I like to win the ballgame, not just say we played really well and lost."