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BOSTON—Overlooking a crowd of about 50 people with lighted candles, two Harvard students spoke from the steps of the Massachusetts State House on Friday evening and urged the University to divest from companies that do business in Sudan.
Benjamin B. Collins ’06 and Hillary M. Mucheru ’07 joined featured guest speaker Simon Deng in demanding that local universities and city and state governments cut financial ties with the regime that has been accused by the United Nations of waging a genocidal campaign against inhabitants of Sudan’s Darfur region.
Deng called for divestment out of a desire to prevent the sort of widespread bloodshed he witnessed as a slave during another civil war between north and south during the 1980s and 1990s. He said he felt that war was exacerbated by a lack of international awareness.
“When the [Sudanese] government murdered millions in the south, nobody talked about it,” he said.
Deng also said that divestment was one of the more effective strategies for taking on Sudan’s government, as he dismissed the role of the United Nations, which he felt would not confront the regime. The war has been described as a confrontation between an Arab governing elite and black minority.
“The U.N. is controlled by Arab oil money,” he said.
Collins and Mucheru focused their speeches on Harvard, which has faced ongoing criticism for an estimated $1.8 million stake in PetroChina, a Chinese oil company with ties to the region.
Collins, who along with Manav K. Bhatnagar ’06 started the online petition www.harvarddivest.com, said he was spurred to action when he read about the links between the University’s endowment and PetroChina in an October article in The Crimson.
Untrained in activism, Collins described how “$10 for a web domain name and a few e-mails” quickly produced a petition that, so far, 79 Harvard faculty members and 257 students have signed, and has garnered national media attention.
Mucheru, the president of the Harvard African Students Association, made his divestment appeal on Friday personal by citing his experiences with Sudanese refugees growing up his native Kenya.
He said he was hopeful that Harvard would sell its shares in PetroChina in light of student and faculty support for such an position.
Friday’s event was sponsored by the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, whose associate director is Jesse A. Sage ’98.
The efforts of Collins and Mucheru are part of a broader campus-wide divestment campaign that has included two November vigils—one in Boston Common and the other on the steps of Memorial Church—that each attracted more than 100 attendees.
So far, however, the campaign has done little to change the University’s position.
Jack Meyer, the president of the Harvard Management Company, which controls the University’s endowment, told The Crimson in November that divestment would only eliminate jobs for the Sudanese people.
“Divesting is not an effective way to make social change,” he said.
Meyer declined to comment in November whether or not Harvard still had investments in PetroChina, citing the management company’s long-standing policy.
Collins and Bhatnagar said in an interview after the vigil that they met with University President Lawrence H. Summers last Thursday. Summers, according to Collins, said he would “look into” the matter.
Summers so far has not publicly commented on the issue and could not be reached this weekend to comment on the Thursday meeting.
There are some voices within the University, however, who would like to see Summers do more.
Professor of Psychology Patrick Cavanagh said this issue is particularly important to him because he adopted two Sudanese refugee children from the country’s southern region, who suffered through the civil war between the north and south.
“We all hope that [Summers] will say a few words about the gravest humanitarian crisis of this decade,” Cavanagh, who did not attend the vigil, wrote in an e-mail.
But Cavanagh did not blame the management company, whose duty “is not to make political statements but to assure the finances of Harvard for the long term.”
“Understandably, [the management company] will divest only when the University community makes it clear that this is a moral obligation of the highest order,” he wrote.
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