Monday, July 2, 2007

Weekly Commentary - Divesting for Darfur

Evoking memories of global activism against apartheid in South Africa, the Save Darfur movement is actively pushing a campaign for divestment from certain companies operating in Sudan.

Though we have elsewhere criticized other stances taken (or not taken) by the Save Darfur movement, this particular focus on divestment is not necessarily objectionable; however, it is important to understand the limitations and potential pitfalls of such advocacy, as well as the more global issue of why divestment from Sudan has progressed in ways that divestment from other human rights abusers has not.

As explained by the academic Eric Reeves, who has written extensively on Darfur,
The divestment campaign targets those companies that list on the New York Stock Exchange and other U.S. exchanges which provide key commercial and capital investments in the economy of Sudan, supporting the National Islamic Front, National Congress Party regime in Khartoum, and insulating them from the consequences of their massive external debt and their profligate expenditures on military weapons and the prosecution of genocidal war in Darfur.
Note that this is divestment from companies "that list on...U.S. exchanges" - it is not divestment from U.S. companies operating in Sudan, because they are already prohibited from doing so by U.S. sanctions. The "real culprits," according to Reeves, are Asian firms, most prominently the Chinese oil company PetroChina.

While urging individual and corporate investors in the U.S. to divest from Chinese companies because of what they are doing in Sudan is acceptable and even laudable in principle, it is also, at the very least, convoluted. Even if the campaign is successful in forcing total U.S. divestment from Chinese oil companies that operate in Sudan, it is not clear how much pressure these firms (some of which, like PetroChina, are state-backed) would actually feel to pull out of the country. There is, to be sure, no shortage of businesses or governments who are willing to invest in oil companies without any consideration for human rights.

Just as fundamentally, this divestment strategy fails to take into account that the Save Darfur movement has far greater leverage vis-a-vis the U.S. government, for whose actions U.S. activists bear direct moral responsibility, and can more easily do something to change. Significant moves - such as pushing the U.S. to fund the African Union forces on the ground in Darfur - have not been made in this more substantive direction, perhaps linked to the curious official posture of the Save Darfur movement, which holds that Washington is doing "good work" in resolving the crisis - evidence for which has not been forthcoming, as it does not exist.

In no small part because it largely frees us of moral culpability by focusing on China's role - which is significant, though again, less subject to pressure from U.S. activists than Washington's own cynical policies - this divestment movement has gained significant ground in a relatively short period of time.

Across the U.S., many states, major cities, presidential candidates, and dozens of universities (aside: note that this sympathetic article in the Los Angeles Times, mimicking the "totalitarian streak" behind the usage of the term "anti-American," bizarrely refers to divestment as "anti-Sudan" in character) have moved to discuss and/or implement varying levels of divestment from Sudan; the campaign is also going after U.S.-based firms such as Berkshire Hathaway (which is headed by Warren Buffet), and Fidelity Investments.

Yet if divestment is a valid tactic for effecting change in countries that seriously violate human rights - that is, if divestment is supported by the victims of the abuses, or can be "targeted" in such a way that it does not have adverse affects for the general population - then where is the rush to divest from Israel's "war crimes"?

The contradiction is explicit in the case of Harvard University. In 2002, in response to a petition to divest the university from the Israeli Occupation, then Harvard President Lawrence Summers condemned the campaign as "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent."

Yet in April 2005, Harvard became "the first major victory in a national campaign for divestment from Sudan" as it divested from PetroChina. As Summers commented,
Divestment is not a step that Harvard takes lightly, but I believe there is a compelling case for action in these special circumstances, in light of the terrible situation still unfolding in Darfur and the leading role played by PetroChina's parent company in the Sudanese oil industry, which is so important to the Sudanese regime.
Employing his own perverse logic, why is this campaign not anti-Chinese, or anti-Arab, anti-African, or anti-Muslim?

As the Harvard law professor and opponent of academic freedom Alan Dershowitz asks about those advocating divestment from the Israeli Occupation,
''Why don't they say anything about Cuba's chilling of dissent or China's occupation of Tibet? Why don't they feel a personal stake in getting Jordan, Egypt, and the Philippines to stop torturing people?'...The only reason they feel so strongly about Israel is because it is the Jewish nation.''
Speaking from our own past experiences as students working for divestment from the Israeli Occupation at the University of Pittsburgh, we literally could not even get the student newspaper - hardly big media - to cover the well attended kick-off event, which featured the legendary anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus. Meanwhile, there is constant coverage of Darfur activism in the press, and it would be unimaginable for a figure even as crass as Dershowitz to openly condemn Darfur activists for bigotry and failing to "say anything about Cuba."

Accordingly, the campaign of targeted divestment from Sudan owes much, if not all of its success to the fact that it coalesces with official U.S. rhetoric on Darfur; alternatively, divesting from Israel's human rights abuses, substantial as they are, does not, and thus the campaign to do so - though longer running - has failed to resonate in the tender hearts of city legislators, state government officials, or the Lawrence Summers of the world (evidently, no small category).

That the campaign to divest from the Israeli Occupation has failed to gain Darfur-like traction, while we bear a much more direct moral responsibility for Israel's actions - which we could likely halt almost immediately - makes the reasons for the relative success of the Sudan divestment campaign clear enough, a campaign which has unfortunately largely failed to make overtures to activists working to end the Israeli Occupation, or other human rights abuses.

That the Save Darfur movement is, in the eyes of its leaders, the "biggest such activism" since Vietnam - instead of the movement to end the war in Iraq, which, again, we could do quite easily - is perhaps an even clearer indication of the failures in our intellectual culture.

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