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Academy Award winner George Clooney was made a United Nations Messenger of Peace at a function in New York yesterday, January 31, and has pledged to “shine a light” on UN peacekeeping efforts around the world, particularly in Darfur.

“When I stood in the hospital next to women who had been raped and set on fire, they looked up to me and said ‘please send the UN’ – not the US, not China, not Russia, just the UN,” said the 46-year-old actor who has just returned from visiting the war-torn nation of Sudan. “You are their only hope.”

However, several UN member nations claimed the actor’s trip was “inappropriate”, and blocked him from delivering his full message to the assembly. Instead, Clooney read it to reporters during a press conference that followed.

“The message is that the world is watching, and that at this point we cannot afford to fail,” he said. “Millions are homeless – not from famine or disease or acts of God – but from a well armed militia intent on ridding the land of its people.”

The conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur began in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. Sudan’s regime is accused of retaliating by organizing a militia of Arab nomads, known as the Janjaweed, to reign terror on the region’s African inhabitants, an allegation the Khartoum denies. It has been estimated that over 200,000 people have been slain since the conflict arose, and the United Nations now states that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is the worst in the world. However, plans to send 26,000 UN peacekeepers into the region are now in doubt due to restrictions imposed by the Khartoum, as well of the failure of Western countries to offer help.

“We tend to not get to see enough of what we need to see anymore,” said Clooney. “It seems as if at times celebrity can bring that focus. It can’t make the policies, it can’t change people’s minds really, but you can bring a camera where you go because they’ll follow you and you can shine a light on it. That seems to be my job.”

Clooney is the ninth person to be made a United Nations Messenger of Peace since the program was established in 1998 by former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. Each Messenger of Peace is chosen from the art, music, literature, or sports worlds to focus attention on UN work, with each Messenger holding the post for three years. Former Messengers of Hope include Michael Douglas, Muhammad Ali, and Vijay Amritraj.

Clooney said his new role was to raise awareness about UN peacekeeping efforts generally, and he would “go wherever I have to to bring some attention.”

He also plans to lobby countries to fulfill their UN peacekeeping funding commitments, and specifically mentioned the United States, which he said owed $1.2 billion.

“There are some groups protecting 250 square kilometers of desert with no helicopters and no radios that work,” he said. “These men and women risking their lives for peace are your responsibility. So either give them the basic tools for protecting the population and themselves or have the decency to bring them all home because you can’t do it halfway.”

George Clooney was born in Kentucky in 1961, but spent part of his childhood in Ohio. After attending – but not graduating from – university, Clooney caught the acting bug. His father was a journalist and talk show host who often used to take young George to the set with him, and the experience added to his son’s wish to become an actor.

Clooney spent the 1980s appearing as minor characters in shows such as The Facts Of Life and The Golden Girls, but it wasn’t until he appeared as Dr Doug Ross in ER in 1994 that he achieved stardom. This was followed by his first movie role in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, opposite Quentin Tarantino.

There was no looking back for Clooney after that. The rest of the 90s was spent with starring roles in One Fine Day (opposite Michelle Pfeiffer), The Peacemaker (opposite Nicole Kidman), Batman And Robin, The Perfect Storm, and Three Kings.

But it was his appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven, alongside Don Cheadle, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, that really shot his star into orbit. As well as spawning two sequels, the film set up a friendship that would help raise awareness of one of the worst humanitarian crises of the new century, and also raise much needed funds for the charities that are involved.

In 2006, Don Cheadle started to write a book about the crisis in Darfur. His passion for the subject attracted the attention of Clooney, who visited the Sudanese region armed with a video camera. The footage he shot of refugees was shown around the world and became a call to action for the two actors. In September of that year, Clooney spoke in front of the UN Security Council, to raise their awareness of the crisis and plead for their help. In December, Clooney accompanied Cheadle on a tour of Egypt and China, in which the pair met with government officials to convince them to pressure Sudan’s Khartoum to bring a halt to the fighting.

Cheadle’s book, Not On Our Watch, was published early in 2007, and in May, Cheadle and Clooney launched the Not On Our Watch organization at the Cannes Film Festival. Their fundraising was an immediate success, with over $9.2 million raised during the first month, and another $750,000 raised in June. The money was donated to a number of charities that work in Darfur, including the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Save the Children, and the World Food Programme.

In October, Clooney appeared in Cheadle’s Darfur Now film, and talked about his experiences in the region, as well as the atrocities he had witnessed during his visits. And in December, both Clooney and Cheadle received special Peace Medals from Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Rome.

Clooney hopes his Messenger of Peace status will help him raise awareness of the horrors he has seen in Darfur, and he will continue to work towards the goal of sending peacekeepers to the Sudan to protect the innocent people being butchered, raped, and tortured every day.

“There’s a lot more responsibility with this one than with an Oscar, which all you really have to do is, you know, drink after the party.”

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