British Columbia Teachers for Peace and Global Education
A Provincial Specialist Association of the BC Teachers' Federation
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Darfur: the Case for Targeted Divestment, By Joel Stephanson
The Darfur conflict in western Sudan is now well into its sixth year.  While it is tempting to speak in statistics rather than paragraphs (hundreds of thousands are dead, and millions more are displaced), many people find individual stories of human experience and suffering far more compelling.  Unfortunately, one does not need to go far online to find horrific stories of Sudanese origin. Here is one:



I was collecting firewood for my family when three armed men on camels came and surrounded me. They held me down, tied my hands and raped me, one after the other. When I arrived home, I told my family what had happened.

"They threw me out of home, and I had to build my own hut away from them. I was engaged to a man, and I was so much looking forward to getting married. After I got raped, he did not want to marry me and broke off the engagement because he said I was now disgraced and spoilt.

"When I was eight months pregnant from the rape, the police came to my hut and forced me with their guns to go to the police station. They asked me questions, so I told them that I had been raped.They told me that as I was not married, I will deliver this baby illegally.

"They beat me with a whip on the chest and back and put me in jail.



 

"I was collecting firewood for my family when three armed men on camels came and surrounded me. They held me down, tied my hands and raped me, one after the other. When I arrived home, I told my family what had happened.

"They threw me out of home, and I had to build my own hut away from them. I was engaged to a man, and I was so much looking forward to getting married. After I got raped, he did not want to marry me and broke off the engagement because he said I was now disgraced and spoilt.

"When I was eight months pregnant from the rape, the police came to my hut and forced me with their guns to go to the police station. They asked me questions, so I told them that I had been raped.They told me that as I was not married, I will deliver this baby illegally.

"They beat me with a whip on the chest and back and put me in jail."

These are the words of a sixteen-year-old Darfuri girl, as cited by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times in 2005.  And though I wish I could say it gets no worse than this, it does: stories of being burnt alive, shot at, bombed, and starved are tragically easy to find, and well-corroborated. 

What can be done in the face of such unfathomable suffering?  Can realistic – and concrete – action be taken by Canadian citizens?  I, for one, am optimistc.  And as a recent Georgia Straight article has demonstrated, one available tool may lie as close to you as your own pocketbook.

Here's what's happening: the BC Investment Management Corporation (BCIMC) manages and invests the pensions of a vast number of public-sector employees in British Columbia, including BC teachers.  Unfortunately, some of those investments have generated income for the Government of Sudan, a primary blame-bearer for the past 5½ years of violence, bloodshed and terror that has plagued Sudan's western region (though they are not alone: various rebel entities must also be held to account for crimes of their own).  As for the corporations that are (or appear to be) operating in Sudan, the US-based Sudan Divestment Task Force (SDTF) places them in one of three categories.  Of most concern are the ones they dub “highest offenders”.  In second place are those of lesser concern, which warrant “ongoing engagement”.  The third category features companies that have no publicly-traded equity, but whose corporate behaviour remains suspect.  Finally, it is important to note that the SDTF has reviewed hundreds of other companies and left them off of the lists entirely, believing that their benefits to ordinary Sudanese outweigh any social costs that may be associated with their operation in Sudan. 

The most recent BCIMC inventory reveals investments in nine current “highest offender” companies, valued at over $127 million.  These include Petrochina, Oil &Natural Gas Corp. Ltd., China Petroleum and Chemical Corp., Lundin Petroleum AB, ABB, Wartsila Oyj, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., Alstom, and the Electricity Generating Public Company Ltd.  From Category Two, the BCIMC holds shares in a similar number of companies, this time worth over $325 million.   Here we find Total SA, GDF Suez, Atlas Copco, Reliance Industries, Man AG, Nippon Oil Corp., Schlumberger, Petrofac, and Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Ltd.  (Please note that these listings have changed in the past, and are subject to change again).  Many of these investments are obviously made in the oil industry, or in China-based companies, or both – and as such have provided significant benefits to Sudan's military.  According to a 2004 Sudan Tribune piece, helicopter gunships used against Sudanese civilians have been found to be of Chinese origin, and Beijing “has asked Khartoum to 'send troops' to areas in which Chinese companies operate”. Even more disconcerting is the proportion of Sudan's oil revenue which is funneled directly back into the military: one former Sudanese finance minister estimated that figure to be a startling 70%.
 
Those who belong to a public sector pension plan in BC thus have the opportunity to wield their influence against mass atrocities and violent governments.  In this scenario, the SDTF's proposed course of action is clear: to engage the suspect companies through one's investment manager (in this case, the BCIMC), and to consider selling off one's shares (or “divesting”) if said companies are proven unresponsive to shareholder engagement over time.  This is emphatically an option of last-resort, but an important one to keep on the table. The ultimate goal is to decrease the profitability of “bad business”, and reduce the windfall profits that have allowed Sudan to finance its violent campaigns against innocent civilians.  

I personally became taken with the SDTF approach for several reasons, namely that their “targeted” approach to divestment does its utmost to balance the needs of ordinary Sudanese against the needs of a criminal government.  If indeed a vast proportion of oil revenue enables a murderous regime to remain intransigent vis-a-vis the international community, it only makes sense to restrict this capacity as much as possible.  That said, there remains the possibility of unintended consequences.  To that end, it is important for investors not to drop any and all ties to Sudan, especially not without careful consideration.  Indeed, the SDTF could not be more insistent that all divestment be managed in a targeted fashion, thus aiming to preserve those ventures that benefit the general population. 

Targeted divestment, like most humanitarian campaigns, will only work if its proponents are sensitive, discerning advocates.  In my view, we must even be ready to change direction if a tactic fails to have its intended effect, or if new information shows it to be inadequate. It is also worth mentioning that divestment is only one of a whole range of tools available for changing the outcome of global crises.  Letter writing, demonstrations, and fundraising for reputable charities are a few of the others at our disposal.  All that said, I believe targeted divestment can be a powerful tool for good, and has proven effective in recent history.

The goal of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, as I perceive it, is to change corporate behaviour – not to engage in grandstanding, or to merely shame various governments and corporations.  To that end, we should remain open to the possibility of seeing this change happen– that is, that a given entity's questionable ethics could be reformed overtime, especially as a result of shareholder pressure.

Sudan could not be a more complex country, and its conflicts are accordingly difficult to understand. But I remain hopeful that with the proper mix of passion and education, a difference can yet be made in Sudan—in Darfur, and in the country's other restless regions. 

Joel Stephanson is a recent UBC graduate.
 

ONLINE RESOURCES:
The Sudan Divestment Task Force website (www.sudandivestment.org) is filled with valuable information, and resources for how to divest.
Stand Canada (www.standcanada.org) aims to make anti-genocide policies a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy.  Their Vancouver chapter can be reached at ubc@standcanada.org.
 
For two sites relating to your pensions, and the management thereof, see:"The Case forDivestment in Sudan” at Compact Quarterly (http://tinyurl.com/casefor).  This article provides one argument for divestment, with links to opposing viewpoints.