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Human Rights: An Investment

By Manav K. Bhatnagar and Benjamin B. Collins

As the dictatorial regime of General Omar al-Bashir continues to wage genocide in Sudan against its own black African population, students at Harvard are not sitting by quietly. Over 700 students, alumni, and faculty are demanding that Harvard’s massive endowment fund stop investing in companies doing business with al-Bashir.

There is no ambiguity over what the actions of the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum amount to. Both houses of Congress, the State Department, the European Union, human rights activists, and civil society organizations have unequivocally accused the Sudanese government of waging genocide. Due to American sanctions, U.S. corporations are barred by law from doing business in Sudan.

Yet Americans, through their investments, have becoming unwitting underwriters of the Sudanese genocide. European, Chinese, and Russian multinational firms enjoy both a lack of restrictions on doing business in Sudan and free access to American capital markets. The terrible result is that Sudan, a country with a $22 billion in foreign debt and a stagnant economy, can now afford state-of-the-art military equipment and fund large militias that ravage African villages in Darfur.

Harvard, a Massachusetts tax-exempt institution, has publicly invested in some of the companies doing business with the Khartoum regime and thus is underwriting the genocide. Harvard’s publicly disclosed stock investments include holdings in Petrochina—a Chinese oil company with established ties to the government and genocide in Sudan—valued at almost $4 million. The full extent of Harvard’s investment in Sudan is unknown, because Harvard is required only to disclose its common stock holdings, which comprise only $3 billion out of an endowment worth $22 billion.

An incipient campaign at Harvard has resulted in around 600 students and nearly 100 faculty members publicly calling for Harvard’s divestment from Sudan. Yet Harvard has, thus far, taken no action. In fact, the outgoing Harvard Management Company president, Jack R. Meyer, has criticized divestment, according to The Crimson, because it might have adverse humanitarian consequences by eliminating jobs for Sudanese civilians. Over 100,000 lives have been lost in Darfur and Harvard is worried about job creation?

Members of this campaign, concerned that Harvard’s involvement in Sudan was an embarrassment to the university and inconsistent with Harvard’s stated policy of ethically responsible investing, met with University President Lawrence H. Summers in early December 2004. Summers was receptive to the concerns of the campaign and gave assurances that Harvard was assessing the situation. It appears that Harvard has yet to take any action, and Summers claims that a decision has not yet been reached. A recently released filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicates that between last September and December—after the link between Harvard, Petrochina, and the violence in Sudan had been made public—Harvard inexcusably more than doubled its holdings in Petrochina.

In 2002, Yale University President Richard Levin called for the divestment of Yale’s endowment from Sudan. In the 1980s, Harvard divested over $160 million from companies operating in South Africa to protest the apartheid government. As one of the most highly visible educational institutions in the world with an enormous endowment, Harvard possesses tremendous symbolic leverage over the Sudanese regime. Harvard should embrace the cause of divestment and take the lead in forcing Sudanese compliance with humanitarian law.

The problem, however, does not end with Harvard—even the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board has invested over $1.4 billion in companies operating in Sudan, while the Boston Retirement System has invested $62 million, according to DivestSudan.org. However, the Massachusetts legislature is currently considering legislation that would divest all state-owned investments in Sudan.

The movement against the genocidal tactics employed in Sudan is gaining steam and has a strong presence in Boston; the struggle for justice, however, should be able to directly target Sudan and not have to spend its resources convincing Harvard to divest from companies doing business in Sudan. The unique position of Harvard to create political change by leveraging its endowment should be utilized to bring justice to the victims of the Khartoum regime.

In Sudan, students cannot speak out against the government without fearing for their lives. In Boston, we should not be so complacent—we have the freedom to hold dictators accountable. As students, we are all implicated in the genocide through Harvard’s investments, but that also means we have leverage to apply pressure—on Sudan and, if needed, on Harvard—to help stop the genocide before thousands more die.

Manav K. Bhatnagar ’06 is a Sanskrit and Indian studies concentrator in Eliot House. Benjamin B. Collins ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Both are Project Officers of the Harvard Darfur Action Group.

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