Divesting From Darfur
When we make the difference.
Making Progress, Daniel Millenson and Dan Mauer, Brandeis University, Mar. 17, 2006
When we make the difference.
By Daniel Millenson and Dan Mauer, Brandeis University
Mar 17th, 2006
A major step in the student movement to stop the genocide in the western Sudanese region of Darfur was announced on March 16. According to UCLA’s Daily Bruin: “The University of California became the first major public university system to vote to divest from companies with financial holdings in Sudan in a unanimous decision by the UC Board of Regents on Thursday.”
With myriad potential sources of funding and arms for the murderous Sudanese government, activist tactics like protests, boycotts and civil disobedience would yield limited progress. The crisis demands solutions on the same order of magnitude as the conflict’s staggering 400,000-person body count.
In response, the Sudan Divestment Task Force has emerged to revive divestment — a highly effective stratagem that inflicts financial pain on the genocidal Sudanese government while simultaneously raising the issue’s profile in the United States. Divestment campaigns have a history of success, such as that against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Sudan divestment campaign complements ongoing efforts to introduce United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeepers into the region. The Task Force lobbies state and local lawmakers, proposes legislation to achieve its policy goals and utilizes local media outlets to target decision-makers. By employing the twin levers of market and constituent pressure the Task Force has greatly enhanced activists’ ability to make tangible differences in Darfur.
In order to force the Sudanese government to stop the genocide, there needs to be meaningful financial repercussions for them if the slaughter continues. Although the United States has imposed sanctions on Sudan since 1997, investors, including schools, states and private pension funds, may still invest in foreign companies doing business in Sudan. Given its $25 billion foreign debt, the government of Sudan relies on these companies in order to stay afloat and continue its wars in Darfur and eastern Sudan. The link between these revenues and genocide is clear. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the government of Sudan pours 60 percent of all oil revenues into military expenditures.
The idea behind divestment is simple: If enough states, universities and pension funds divest from these companies, share prices will drop, forcing complicit companies to stop doing business in Sudan in order to protect their own interests. By doing so, they will deprive the government of the capital it vitally needs to continue its bloody campaign. It sounds extremely simple — and it is. Even if divestment doesn’t compel the Sudanese government to completely stop the genocide, it will, if successful, reduce their revenues enough to lower its toll. Because of the connection between oil revenues and arms purchases, simply cutting those revenues leaves less money to fund the killing.
While it’s easy to dismiss the current effort as well-intentioned, wishful thinking, past experience has shown divestment to be among the most effective weapons against immoral foreign governments. During the 1980s, South Africa ’s entrenched apartheid regime seemed as intractable as the racism which spawned it, yet a worldwide boycott and divestment campaign played an integral role in ending the decades-old system. Yet, international sanctions and pension fund and university divestments starting in the mid-1980s crippled the South African economy, costing the country over $7 billion in the second half of the 1980s. At this point, the South African government had no choice but to succumb to international will and end apartheid. For similar reasons, divesting from Sudan is a critical part of efforts to ensure peace in Darfur, as the Sudanese government has shown that it will continue funding the genocide as long as it has the means to do so.
Experience also tells us that Sudan, in particular, is sensitive to divestment’s market mechanism. The Canadian company Talisman Energy succumbed to divestment in 2001 when the public discovered that the firm assisted the Sudanese government in its 21-year civil war with the south. Because numerous state and private pension funds divested, the company’s stock tanked by a third, stoking shareholder discontent that ultimately forced the company out of the country. Efforts like this brought financial pressure upon Khartoum, hastening the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with southern rebels in early 2003.
To date, Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Samford, Yale, Amherst and Brown have all divested from some of the 30-odd multinational companies currently doing business in Sudan. Many of these schools have huge endowments, so it’s fantastic that they’ve cut their ties to companies that are helping fund this slaughter. Yet, to have a real impact, this narrow swath of schools isn’t going to cut it. Most schools have administrators who are willing to do the right thing, but they’re not going to without a push from students. That means that it’s really important that you tell your board of trustees and administration that your school can no longer afford to play a role in sustaining this genocide.
Fortunately, universities aren’t alone in the fight. Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon each divested their state pension funds from Sudan, and state legislatures across the country are considering following suit. These states include Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut, where state treasurer Denise Nappier is pushing the state legislature to give her the authority to divest. These states represent an opportunity to divest on a much larger scale than universities, but your state legislators won’t feel any impetus to pass legislation if they don’t hear from constituents like you.
The last few months have seen growing momentum to divest from companies doing business in Sudan. However, the lesson of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa is that, while divestment has the potential to end horrific situations, it takes a unified front to enact change. If only a handful of schools and states divest, this change will be marginal at best.
That means that it’s incredibly important for students at schools large and small, public and private, to get their schools and states to divest. If everyone does their part, we can make a real difference in Darfur and force the Sudanese government to end this horrible slaughter. Stopping genocide isn’t easy. Great deeds rarely are.
Daniel Millenson serves as Executive Director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force. He is currently an undergraduate student at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Dan Mauer is a senior at Brandeis University who is majoring in politics, economics and African and Afro-American Studies. He is a Field Organizer for the Sudan Divestment Task Force. For more information on divestment and how you can get involved, please email the Task Force at firstname.lastname@example.org.