Sudan Fight Unites Hawks, Left in Push For Divestment

By Marc Perelman

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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In what its supporters hope will be a repeat of the successful divestment campaign against apartheid-era South Africa, security hawks and human-rights advocates are joining forces in an increasingly successful grass-roots campaign to convince universities and public pension funds to divest from Sudan.

Liberal groups are pressing universities and states to divest from Sudan over atrocities committed by its government and government-linked militias in the Darfur region. The Bush administration has determined that the killings amounted to “genocide,” and human rights groups have been calling on the international community to lean on Khartoum to curb the violence, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

At the same time, right-leaning organizations are pressing the case against Sudan as part of their effort to pass legislation that would prevent public pension funds from holding stakes in companies doing business in or with the six countries on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. In addition to Sudan, the terrorism list includes Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria.

The makeshift political alliance is bringing together liberal and hawkish forces that have feuded over the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The newfound partnership is proving increasingly successful on campuses and state legislatures across the country as it takes aim at what has been estimated as the more than $90 billion invested by top American pension systems in foreign companies doing business with Sudan.

In recent weeks, Stanford University voted to divest from four major foreign companies that operate in Sudan; Illinois adopted groundbreaking legislation requiring state pension funds to divest from Sudan, and Louisiana enacted a law authorizing state pension funds to divest from companies operating in countries that sponsor terrorism. Other states, including Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, New York and Vermont, are considering similar measures, most of them focused on Sudan.

“We have a powerful combination of state legislators, university activists, faith-based groups and international advocates,” said Vermont Senator Matt Dunne, a democrat, who is the main sponsor of a bill that would require Vermont to divest from Sudan.

The lack of public information available about the investment portfolio of universities and state pension funds is forcing liberal activists to rely on an unlikely source: a report issued last summer by the hawkish Center for Security Policy, headed by former Reagan Defense official Frank Gaffney Jr.

The Washington-based center estimates that the largest pension plans in the United States have invested $188 billion in 400 companies that have operated projects in, or conducted sales with, countries such as Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, North Korea and Saddam Hussein-era Iraq.

“People are horrified when they learn about this,” said Christopher Holton, a vice president of the center, and the point man for its “Divest Terror” campaign. “My job is to make them realize than they can act on it and once we lay out the facts, there is definitely a lot of interest.”

The center is relying on a catalog of pension fund assets put together by Conflict Securities Advisory Group, a private risk-assessment company. Some government officials and liberal activists question the accuracy of the figures. In fact, students and legislators are working to obtain their own figures. However, no one is challenging the notion that universities and pension funds have stakes in foreign companies doing business in countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism. While sanctions in the United States prohibit American companies from doing business in those countries, foreign companies can legally operate in them.

Despite the mounting criticism of countries dealing with terrorist-supporting countries, most of the momentum for the divestment campaign has come from the growing exposure of the atrocities committed in the Darfur region by the Sudanese government and its militias.

Jewish organizations, fiercely battling to block an anti-Israel divestment push on college campuses, have not joined the anti-Sudan divestment campaign. But they have worked to focus international attention on the failure of the Sudanese government to stop the mass killing of civilians in Darfur. On June 26, about 30 Jewish organizations and synagogues across the New York metropolitan area are slated to participate in a “Jewish Community Day of Learning” in order to help mobilize against the atrocities in Darfur.

Several states and pension plans, while stopping short of directly endorsing divestment, also have been shining a critical spotlight on Sudan.

In California, after rejecting a divestment provision, lawmakers passed a bill in April instructing the state pension fund to “encourage” companies doing business in Sudan not to take actions that promote human rights violations. That same month, Arizona dropped a divestment proposal; but the state passed a bill in April requiring its pension fund to report all its holdings in companies doing business with terrorism-supporting countries.

Last month, the board of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS — the largest pension fund in America, with some $177 billion in assets — voted in favor of a resolution urging pension funds to protest human rights abuses in Sudan.

Also in May, the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, which represents public-retirement-system executives, wrote to outgoing Securities and Exchange Commission chairman William Donaldson, asking his agency for guidance in determining which investments should be considered as supporting terrorism. This week, the SEC sent letters to American and foreign companies requesting that they disclose any business dealings with terror-supporting states, according to The Associated Press.

An aide to New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi said that an informal group of state treasurers in recent months had been discussing the question of whether to divest. But at this point, it is unclear what the treasurers will decide.

The anti-Sudan forces have registered several significant victories in their divestment campaign.

The governor of Louisiana signed a bill into law last month authorizing the state’s 13 pension funds to divest from companies doing business in and with the terrorist-sponsoring nations. The Illinois legislature passed a law a month ago requiring the state’s five pension funds to divest all of the money — estimated at around $1 billion — invested in companies operating in Sudan over a period of 18 months. The measure in Illinois also prohibits the state treasurer from working with any financial institution doing business in that country. Governor Rod Blagojevich is expected to sign the bill soon.

On June 7, Stanford’s board of trustees voted unanimously to divest from all directly held investments in four companies operating in Sudan: PetroChina and Sinopec of China, Tatneft of Russia and ABB of Switzerland. The decision came after Harvard University decided in April to divest from PetroChina.

In addition to Harvard’s and Stanford’s divestment decisions, a Dartmouth College advisory committee voted late last month to recommend divestment. The final decision is due from the board of trustees in September. At the University of Washington, the board of regents agreed to have the university treasurer decide whether to divest or take other action against companies working in Sudan.

Despite these steps, student activists said that many universities have repelled efforts to take steps against Sudan. The universities have said that comprehensive oversight mechanisms ensuring socially responsible investments are already in place. And student activists said that at some universities, administrators said that they do not want to interfere with the work of their fund managers.

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