On the morning of October 25, 2004, Harvard roommates Manav Bhatnagar and Ben Collins woke up to some particularly disturbing news in the campus daily, the Harvard Crimson. “Harvard has invested millions of dollars in a Chinese oil company whose financial dealings with the Sudanese government, human rights activists say, have funded that regime’s ongoing slaughter of its own people,” the Crimson reported. The roommates sprang into action, sparking what would soon become the largest divestment movement since students helped to topple South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.
Within months, a campuswide coalition of African and African-American student groups, human rights activists and religious organizations had formed to pressure the university into divesting from PetroChina. By April 2005 the demands were met. Samantha Power, author of “A Problem From Hell” and a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, said it was “the first week anything tangible has been done that would cause the Sudanese government to think twice about their genocidal campaign.”
After Harvard became the first university to divest, successful campaigns at Stanford, Yale, Brown, Amherst, Dartmouth, Brandeis and Samford (in Alabama) followed. In March the University of California system became the first public educational institution to divest. The national Sudan Divestment Task Force has taken the fight beyond university walls to public pension funds: Thus far, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon have passed divestment legislation; thirteen other states have legislation pending. On April 6 the movement scored its largest victory when the California State Teachers’ Retirement System–America’s second-largest public pension fund, with $141 billion in assets–voted to divest. Daniel Millenson, executive director of the task force, says his group urges “targeted–rather than blanket–divestment,” meaning it focuses on companies that provide revenue or arms to the government and excludes those that provide social services. Nobel winner Joseph Stiglitz, who voted for divestment as a member of Amherst’s board of trustees, says the move won’t hurt civilians in Sudan. Most divestment efforts have targeted the oil industry, which, he says, does not create jobs and largely finances military operations. “The government does not have a heavy development agenda–it’s not as though the government is busy building schools in Darfur,” Stiglitz says. “It’s a pretty clear case of this money being used against the government’s own people.”
While no company has pulled out of Sudan, Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves says, “This is an explosive campaign, and I think we’ll see some major announcements in the coming months.” Reeves speaks from experience. In 2001 he was successful in a separate divestment campaign against the Canadian company Talisman Energy, which helped fund the Sudanese government in its twenty-one-year civil war. Many of Canada’s largest public and private pension funds divested, causing Talisman’s share price to drop by 35 percent, which led to the company’s pullout from Sudan. Reeves believes this financial pressure accelerated the signing of the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the rebels from the South.
The Sudanese government is starting to feel the pressure from the divestment movement. It took out an estimated $1 million in ads in the New York Times in March, and the Sudanese embassy recently published a press release decrying divestment efforts. “The fact that the regime is responding so distinctly to the movement means they certainly understand the implications,” says Reeves.
While the divestment movement alone likely won’t be enough to bring an end to the atrocities in Darfur, it has had a much more tangible effect on the situation than calls for US intervention. In fact, while Bush, in the face of so much pressure from the grassroots, has taken a leading role in calling for an intervention force, NATO and EU nations have been extremely resistant to act, at least partly because they don’t want to be associated with a Bush-led venture in the current political climate.
Why have US students responded so strongly to Sudan, when closer-to-home issues like the Iraq War and cuts in financial aid have failed to produce mass movements on campus? “This is the Rwanda generation,” says Power. “The foundational moral learning experience for these students was Rwanda–they don’t understand how they could have been alive while it happened.”