By Emma Goldberg
In November 2011, the GOP presidential hopefuls hit the road to meet with voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states with early primaries. Mitt Romney announced to voters that his campaign aimed “to save a vision of America,” the country he calls “the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.”
Eight thousand miles away in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a radically different presidential election was unfolding. Allegations of fraud plagued the voting process, instigating violence in Kananga and other major cities throughout the vast nation. Since the elections, human rights abuses have spread with security forces killing more than 25 civilians. Attempting to prevent the spread of post-election information, the government shut down SMS texting services.
What did U.S. candidates have to say about it? Nothing. Nor is the Congolese election the only humanitarian issue that has largely been ignored on the campaign trail. On the contrary, candidates have been applauded for bashing humanitarian aid and support for developing countries. Newt Gingrich told constituents that he would make heavy cuts to the foreign aid budget, saying that America “ought to start off at zero” and tell developing countries, “explain to me why I should give you a penny.” Mitt Romney concurred with this sentiment.
Paradoxically, the candidates have been talking incessantly about American leadership and preeminence on the world stage. Romney has told voters, “I believe a strong America must — and will — lead the future.” Gingrich endorsed this vision of American exceptionalism, telling constituents, “every generation must learn why being an American is a unique and precious experience.” How can the candidates claim to endorse American leadership, yet reject responsibility for those deprived of freedom and security abroad?
A group of student organizers have begun amplifying that question, intent on holding their presidential hopefuls accountable for global leadership. STAND is a student-led anti-genocide organization with more than a hundred chapters on high school and college campuses across the United States. This semester, STAND students are using the 2012 presidential elections as an opportunity to engage the candidates in conversations about mass atrocities prevention, civilian protection, and the foreign aid budget. The Know Your Candidate campaign will allow students to raise their voices in the current political climate, as well as to raise national awareness about the issue of genocide prevention. Using state primaries as an outlet for participation, STAND students will hold local events, attend town hall meetings, and implement letter-writing campaigns aimed at sustaining the U.S. budget for foreign aid. During national debates STAND will use social media to raise the profile of humanitarian issues that the candidates have failed to address.
Sudan will be high on the list. Aerial bombardment and ground attacks by the government have persisted on the Sudan-South Sudan border for the past eight months, displacing more than 80,000 civilians. Until January 31, no GOP candidate so much as mentioned the region. On the 31st, Romney released his first statement on civilian protection, condemning the violence in South Kordofan, Sudan. He showed courage in addressing the subject of humanitarian intervention during a campaign season in which compassion is in low esteem, with voters cheering for execution and jeering assistance to the needy.
Statements like Romney’s should not demand courage. They should be expected of candidates who have promised global leadership.