Being Serious about Sudan

Activists have washed their hands of Darfur as violence begins anew

All the major news outlets with correspondents still in Sudan—that’s three by my count—report that Darfur’s genocide is entering a third phase of renewed violence.

An understaffed African Union force bereft of a strong mandate which everyone expected to fail is, indeed, failing.

The United Nations does what it does best in remaining inert, paralyzed this time by the veto power of China, which does brisk business in Sudanese oil and supplies the Sudanese government with most of its armaments. The United Nations’ latest resolution called for a peacekeeping force, but only if the Sudanese government sponsoring the genocide wanted it there. (Khartoum declined.)

If wrapping one’s mind around the conflict in Darfur was hard before, people will be really confused by the coming attraction: It’s Sudanese government forces against rebel forces, one rebel group against an alliance of other rebel groups, the neighboring country of Chad backing some but not all these rebels, Sudan sponsoring other Chadian rebels, and, of course, the pinwheel of Darfur’s genocide, that which never changes—Arab militias killing black peasants en masse.

But even before recent twists and turns, most socially conscious types had withdrawn into the realm of Do-Goodia, where facts matter less than good intentions.

Such was last year’s divestment campaign led by Harvard’s Darfur Action Group. Then, thousands of man hours were spent convincing universities and pension plan managers to withdraw their investments from Chinese oil companies doing blood-stained business in Darfur.

The practical consequence of selling stock, of course, is that there’s someone buying it on the other end—in this case, the Chinese government who, as a shareholder, is much less prone to do-gooder sentimentality than the average Harvard student.

Perhaps the divestment campaign “raised public consciousness,” as its supporters claimed. Even so, it’d be safe to say that activists and their target audience learned a lot more about Harvard’s investment practices than they did about Sudan and its troubles. Darfur divestors thought they were, at least, making a statement via petitions and activism; the Americans who hoisted the Stars and Stripes atop their SUVs in the wake of 9/11 surely thought the same way.

In all, the divestment hullabaloo accomplished two things its name implies.

It divested socially conscious investors from the decision-making processes of publicly traded companies.

And it divested all of us from the anxiety that we might be somehow guilty. The panging sensation of complicity is not new—it welled up in Pontius Pilate some millennia ago. He didn’t withdraw his investments from the timber industry—in those days, a literal hand-washing sufficed—but the message was clear: I’m not to blame for whatever happens now.

It should go without saying that withdrawing investments from companies which provide money to fund a government’s campaign of mass extermination is an anemic response to genocide, even more so if it’s the only response. The moment Harvard divested from PetroChina and Sinopec was the campaign’s apotheosis, but it really should have been only the beginning.

But targeting Harvard money managers makes for great theatre—and because the target forever remains Harvard, campus activists can pull off the performance time and again with uncomplicated dedication and no bruised sensibilities.

The problem is that taking Sudan’s genocide seriously, and not just as an extension of Harvard’s investment scheme, would mean reconsidering some cherished conventions.

It would mean recognizing that China, not “the Bush regime,” is the international menace vis-à-vis Sudan. The name of the Middle Kingdom should be on our lips—preferably as a curse—whenever Sudan is mentioned.

Being tough on Sudan would mean recognizing that the United Nations will only ever play a perfunctory role in a real solution. Sarah B. Sewall, a peacekeeping expert with the Carr Center for Human Rights, argues that the United Nations would at most issue a Security Council resolution which would need to be “creatively construed” for any sort of meaningful intervention to occur.

Those speaking ill of any foreign policy that creates more terrorists would have to check their priorities. Stopping the Darfur genocide would mean giving assistance to black heterodox Muslim Darfuris while beating back Arab militias who are quietly seen by many in the Arab world as engaging in a noble holy war. If the war in Iraq has boosted the number of terrorists, a Western-led or Western-encouraged intervention in Sudan would be a bonanza. Osama bin Laden, who once operated in Sudan with the government’s blessing, has said as much.

If you want activism, have it. One hundred Harvard students chained to the Chinese Embassy would doubtless do much more to “raise consciousness” than a divestment campaign ever could.

But being serious about Sudan requires us to challenge our orthodoxies, not to engage in cookie cutter activism that brings the greatest of efforts to bear on the party with the smallest share of the blame. Even if we don’t have a silver bullet for Sudan, we should at least understand that the problem we face has everything to do with others’ bullets, and not just with our dollar bills.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.