George Clooney’s War on Kleptocracy in South Sudan

The actor and activist sits down with The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, John Avlon, to discuss The Sentry, his new effort to help the people of South Sudan by taking aim at corruption.

09.13.16 7:55 PM ET

Getting Americans to care about human-rights atrocities half-a-world away is hard. Getting them fired up about confronting the corruption that fuels those slaughters is an order of magnitude harder. But that’s what actor George Clooney and human-rights activist John Prendergast are aiming to do with their new project, The Sentry.

“You can’t shame war criminals,” explains Clooney. But, he says, “You can shame people in the international community: banks and bankers, lawyers. There’s a lot of people that you can shame who don’t want to be associated with atrocities.”

That’s where The Sentry comes in. Building off their partnership with the Satellite Sentinel, which deployed real-time satellite images to detect troop movements and stop slaughters before they occur, this new initiative aims at the roots of much of the current conflicts in South Sudan—not ethnic rivalry but greed.

To get you up to speed, here’s the current state of South Sudan as explained by Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project. “The president kicked the vice president out of the country in mid-2013, principally because they wanted to make sure that their faction could have all of the opportunities for corruption. So once the vice president and his faction were kicked out of the government, it was only a matter of time before he had to fight his way back in, because it’s all or nothing. The war erupted, it was a fire that just raged across the land…They’ll use attack helicopters. They’ll use rape as a tool of war. They’ll recruit child soldiers and go in and send them as cannon fodder into villages to kill people. The worst human-rights abuses being committed in the world. And this is what South Sudan has dealt with because of this fallout between these thieves over the last 2½ years.”

It’s a particularly brutal kleptocracy, with the money going to fund lavish lifestyles as well as military hardware that’s in turn used against the people of the country.

For Clooney, it’s a continuation of his commitment to leverage his celebrity to get people to care about something more than celebrity as he has kept faith with the people of South Sudan. Back in 2011, his relentless advocacy helped restore international attention to a long-promised referendum that ultimately resulted in a 98 percent vote for separation from the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan.

I traveled through Sudan with Clooney and Prendergast for a week surrounding the referendum for a Newsweek cover story. Even amid the celebrations, which were attended by then-Sen. John Kerry, Clooney was cautious about getting too close with the newly minted president, Salva Kiir, wondering if he might drift in the direction of a Robert Mugabe or Charles Taylor. He was also clear-eyed about America’s limited attention span, half-joking that it might take “Real Housewives of Sudan” to keep us focused on the fortunes of the newest nation on Earth. With The Sentry, he’s certainly supplied some drama.

The initiative between Clooney and Prendergast comes paired with an investigative report about corruption in South Sudan with stories fit for a movie script. There’s the president’s 12-year-old son who controls 25 percent of an oil company; the shadowy Russian arms dealer who goes by the nebbish nom de guerre “Mark Goldmann”; the Chinese casino venture betting big on a country where more than 2 million people are displaced. A nephew of the vice president conducted an armed takeover of a security business when someone unwisely asked him to pay for shares in the company. There are generals buying lavish luxury retreats and multiple BMWs on $65,000 salaries and one high-living son in-law nicknamed “Smart Boy for Life,” who makes it rain on the international party circuit while his fellow citizens back home struggle and starve.

Along with those stories of excess and buffoonish corruption, the site offers a series of proposals to combat the kleptocracy using tools the U.S. government and businesses already have at their disposal.

Targeted sanctions that aim at specific individuals can be imposed by expanding existing executive orders to cover public corruption and misappropriation of funds. But so far broadly implemented sanctions with little comprehensive follow through have cut off law-abiding citizens from credit while doing little to deter bad actors, further destabilizing the young nation.

“You gotta go in with a scalpel,” Clooney explains, “not a machete.”

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The report also recommends that a provision of the Patriot Act be used by the Treasury Department to counteract money laundering through comprehensive monitoring of the dirty money and scrutiny of real estate transactions by family members.

There’s some small irony in that Clooney was an uncompromising critic of the Patriot Act during the Bush administration. “Anyone who’s fond of democracy has to look at parts of the, the Patriot Act with a little trepidation,” Clooney says. “But there are elements of that that I think come in extraordinarily handy right now for this situation and I don’t see anything wrong with being able to look into finances of people who are committing atrocities. And if it weren’t in the Patriot Act, it should be in some other Act.”

With their agenda set out, Clooney & Co met with President Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry in the 24 hours after the initiative was unveiled on Monday at the National Press Club.

“We’re not the government. We can’t issue subpoenas. We can’t freeze assets,” says Clooney. “We can only prod the government to do that and as advocates that’s exactly what our job is.”

But government, he says, can only provide part of the solution. To follow the money also means dealing with the banks—and helping them see they have what might be called an enlightened self-interest in helping police the problem.

Foreign companies have been making direct payments to South Sudanese generals and officials, enabling them to move the filthy lucre with ease between family members, properties, and accounts. Cracking down on the corporate enablers of kelptocracy is key.

“We’re showing you evidence that you are helping to launder this money which is being used to commit atrocities,” says Clooney, imagining an interrogation of banksters. “I know you don’t want to be involved in that and, and we feel very confident that that’s gonna be an effective tool.”

Adds Prendergast: “The banks can become our ally in this.”

The ultimate goal is to help South Sudan develop the civic structures that can cultivate a civil society, but that requires a combination of time and the rule of law, rather than brute force. It will mean requiring a greater degree of transparency and accountability through foreign governments and corporations. But the alternative is another failed state, with ever more chaos, heartbreak, and bloodshed.

“It’s not just about following the money,” says Clooney, explaining why Americans whose eyes too frequently glaze over when confronted with financial crimes should stay focused on the cost of corruption in South Sudan.

“If this state were to fail in any way, shape or form, the influences that will come in have never been friendly to the United States and can always be dangerous. This is infinitely cheaper. You’re sitting at home in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I’m from, and going ‘Well why should I care?’ You should care because you don’t want a failed state. In that vacuum bad things happen and those bad things can come to our shores.”