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Demanding Divestment From Sudan

Demanding Divestment From Sudan

The student-led divestment movement against Sudan is gaining momentum, but can it really work?
By Christina Asquith

Bowing to student demands to “stop supporting genocide,” the University of California regents voted earlier this year to divest millions of dollars from companies working in the war-torn African nation of Sudan, the first major public university in the nation to take such action.

Since student protests on the subject began at Harvard University in late 2004, almost a dozen public and private universities have withdrawn their investments in companies doing business with Sudan. The students argue that these businesses are helping to prop up a government accused of genocide. The states of New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon have also joined the movement by approving divestment measures, and college students are actively trying to persuade workers unions to divest, such as the University of California Technical Workers and the California Teachers’ Association.

“The divestment movement is really picking up,” says Seth Izen, a sophomore at Williams College and co-chair of his campus’ Sudan Divestment Campaign. “We’re more organized and more centralized each day.”

Students from across the country conducted online research on companies, examined articles and even contacted the CIA to compile lists of companies who do business with Sudan. At Dartmouth College, students woke up early to make calls to European and Chinese companies trying to verify information about the company’s dealings in Sudan.

The student-led campaign stands as an example of university

administrations taking financial action as a result of student pressure. In recent years, similar divestment campaigns — including an attempt to pressure Harvard to return endowment money from the bin Laden family and a nationwide divestment campaign against Israel — have failed. Many say the last successful divestment campaign was in the 1980s, when a grassroots student movement in this country helped overturn South Africa’s apartheid government.

While the strategy was ultimately effective in South Africa, some university administrators have expressed concern that by divesting, they lose the ability to pressure the company from the inside. They also fear exposing a school’s financial health to the whims of special interest and political groups.

“You have to think not only about the loss of revenue to the Yale endowment that is supporting research and education, but also about the effect on the people of Sudan,” says Tom Conroy, a spokesman for Yale University. The university divested from seven companies in Sudan in February, but it wouldn’t disclose financial figures. “Are you divesting from a company that is employing people?” Conroy asks.

Protesting Human Rights Abuses
The largest nation in Africa in terms of geographic area, Sudan sits on the east coast of the continent, just south of Egypt and west of Ethiopia. While rich with natural resources, Sudan’s crippling corruption and mismanagement have squandered most of the country’s natural wealth and have led to fighting between tribes over food, land, water and, most recently, millions in international aid.

Fighting has long reigned between the government in the capital city of Khartoum and rebels in southern Sudan. In 2003, a peace agreement was being brokered between the two groups when an uprising broke out in the western region of Darfur. The government is accused of arming the Janjaweed — an Arab militia — and allowing them to crack down on the uprising by scorching villages and committing mass murder and rape. Despite widespread mischaracterizations of the brutality as caused by racial or religious tension, almost everyone in the Darfur region is Black African and Muslim; and organizations such as Human Rights Watch say the conflict is more political than sectarian.

“There are Arab nomads who are using this opportunity as an alliance with the government to grab land from people and take their animals, goods, furniture, rugs and pillows,” says Jemera Rone, East Africa coordinator for Human Rights Watch.

In the past three years, an estimated 2 million people have been displaced and between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died. The chaos has brought the economy to a halt, exacerbating the suffering. In 2004, the U.S. Congress declared the situation a “genocide,” a legal term recognized by the U.N. General Assembly that implies an effort to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

But international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, believe the government’s motivation is political power, not ethnic cleansing, and characterize the atrocities as “crimes against humanity.”

“The pattern of human rights abuses in Darfur is very different from what happened in Rwanda,” wrote Michael Clough, former director of the Africa program at the Council of Foreign Relations, in a recent op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times. “In Darfur, the Sudanese government has targeted African villagers. But it is not clear that the government’s intent is to wipe out these Africans.”

Nevertheless, once Congress, led by the Congressional Black Caucus and right-wing Christian conservatives, applied the term “genocide,” the issue gained tremendous exposure. University students, energized by the 2004 release of the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” about the 1994 genocide of perhaps 1 million Tutsis in Rwanda, took notice. 

“There’s no way you can extract oil from Sudan without it ending up in the coffers of a genocidal government,” says Niral Shah, a sophomore at Dartmouth and co-chair of the Darfur Action Group. “So you have to draw a line and expect the universities to take a moral stand, and I think genocide is a good place to draw that line.”

The other colleges and universities to divest include Amherst College, Brown University, Dartmouth, Princeton University, Samford University, Stanford University, Yale and Washington State University, among others. To date, no historically Black colleges and universities have reported protests or calls for divestment.

Peter Hardie, vice president for campaigns and labor affairs for African rights group TransAfrica, says he has not gotten involved in the Sudan divestment campaign because he thinks it would be too difficult to convince foreign companies to act.

U.S. companies have not been legally allowed to set up businesses in Sudan since 1997, when then-President Bill Clinton forbid such activity to protest the human rights abuses in the country. The foreign companies that rushed into Sudan to fill the void have been much less receptive to U.S. student campaigns and global calls denouncing the country’s human rights violations. The primary companies targeted in the divestment campaigns have been Chinese oil and natural gas company PetroChina, Swiss engineering company ABB and Russian oil company Tatneft.

Hardie supports the student campaign, saying that profitable oil export businesses insulate the Sudanese government. 

“Without economic pressure there is less pressure for the government to be accountable around their actions with the Janjaweed,” he says.

Organized protests, such as the one that took place in the nation’s capital in April, have been joined by celebrities such as actor George Clooney, singer Bono, Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel and actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. In many cases, business school students are teaming up with fellow classmates in political science or sociology courses to argue their case. So far, no company has actually pulled out of Sudan, but students say they’d rather have companies pressure the Sudanese government to end the violence by threatening to pull out.

Divestment campaigns demand that universities comb through their endowments and portfolios and sell off any investments in companies, banks or governments doing business with Sudan. The investments can be extensive, with millions of dollars at stake. Although in the case of Sudan, even such large figures usually represent less than 1 percent of a universities’ overall portfolio.

Most agree that in order to be effective, the tactic must be adopted by a broad swath of groups, including international companies and banks. Students, however, say that the negative publicity associated with their campaign also effectively pressures politicians and companies.

Harvard activists say the university has divested a roughly $3.87 million stake in PetroChina, which is working with the Sudanese government on a $1 billion venture to boost oil production.

When the divestment issue arose at Yale, students at the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic developed a comprehensive report that was presented to the administration. Yale divested after “numerous respected United States and international authorities and organizations concluded that the systematic violence in Sudan constitutes genocide, and that the Sudanese government supports and is deeply involved in this horrific activity,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin in a statement.

While divestment as a political movement has picked up momentum with the Sudan campaign, American University professor and Sudan activist Steve Hansch fears that the Sudanese government and its foreign investors will thumb its nose at the international community.

He says the effort would be better directed by sending military forces to protect the people and increasing funds to aid communities already on the ground.

“South Africa saw itself as a cosmopolitan country that wanted to be part of the global world, and that was enough to make them give up on apartheid,” says Hansch who teaches humanitarian aid at American. “Conversely, the successful divestment campaign against Burma has not led to any change in government. The economic sanctions are hurting the people of Burma and the economy is slowing. This could be what will happen in Sudan.”

Future Investments
The divestment action prohibits future investment in these companies until such time as there is compelling information that a company has materially improved its operation and is no longer contributing to the suffering in Darfur, or that the situation there has improved to such a point that the ban is no longer thought to be in the best interests of the people of Sudan. — Statement from University
of California Regents, March 2006.

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