Real Leaders

George Clooney Admits to Spying on Sudan

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

At some point actor George Clooney realized that swinging the spotlight off himself and onto pressing social issues was a good idea.

Since 2010 he’s been actively campaigning against the genocide in Sudan, an East African country that’s been torn apart by a bloody 21-year civil war that has claimed more than 2 million lives and seen people enslaved, sold, tortured, murdered and raped. A key factor in the conflict, as with so many other wars, has been the control of oil. Sudan is now the seventh largest oil producer in Africa.

Oil has brought corruption and turmoil in its wake, virtually everywhere it has been discovered in the developing world. Second only perhaps to the arms industry, its lack of transparency and concentration of wealth invites kickbacks and bribery, as well as distortions to regional economies. In poverty stricken regions such as East Africa, this combination can be lethal. When it comes to oil, there is no other commodity on earth that produces such great profit. 

In 2005 Clooney executive produced and starred in Syriana, a political thriller that unfolds against the intrigue of the global oil industry. Rather than leave his script lying around the dressing room after the movie, Clooney took the lessons he learned from the plot and turned it into action. After Syriana, Clooney became involved with the launch of Oil Change, a campaign to eliminate America’s dependence on foreign oil. The campaign also sought to educate Americans. “If you’re doing a movie about oil consumption and corruption, you can’t just talk the talk,” Clooney said. “You gotta walk the walk.”

Part of walking the talk was to marry British-Lebanese lawyer and activist Amal Alamuddin in 2014, who  specializes in international law and human rights. Not afraid of controversy, she has worked on cases involving disputed temples along the Cambodian-Thai border,  the Armenian Genocide, and has also represented Julian Assange.

The couple are preoccupied with revealing hidden truths and raising awareness around human rights across the world. While Amal prepares for a case at the European Court of Human Rights this year, representing imprisoned Azerbaijan  journalist Khadija Ismayilova, her husband is focused on saving lives in Sudan.

The sight of a government slaughtering its own people became too much for Clooney, who decided that the lack of media attention and world outrage around Sudan needed to be addressed. Used to being under the scrutiny of cameras on screen, he realized that atrocities that happened away from cameras are easily ignored. He established the Satellite Sentinel Project in conjunction with the DigitalGlobe and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which uses satellite surveillance to make visible the atrocities in Sudan to anyone with a computer.

“We went to DigitalGlobal and asked ‘why, if you can Google Earth my house, can’t we do that to war criminals too,’” says Clooney. “Most of the money I make on the Nespresso commercials I spend keeping a satellite over the border of North and South Sudan to keep an eye on Omar al-Bashir (the Sudanese dictator charged with war crimes at The Hague),” says Clooney. “Then he puts out a statement saying that I’m spying on him and how would I like it if a camera was following me everywhere, and I go, ‘Well welcome to my life, Mr. War Criminal.’ I want the war criminal to have the same amount of attention that I get. I think that’s fair.”

Clooney has already been lauded for saving millions of lives by drawing international attention to an otherwise forgotten part of world, and he’s actively using his celebrity status to get people to care about something more important than just “celebrity.” He has found a kindred spirit in Amal, and together they are telling the stories that tyrants would rather leave untold.


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