Don’t Divest, Invest in Research

The Burma Action Movement should check their facts before making demands

Just as the Harvard Corporation announced the long-awaited divestment from PetroChina, a new student group, the Burma Action Movement (BAM), is trying their luck with the divestment approach. Their logic echoes that of the recently-disbanded Senior Gift Plus. The group claims that Harvard’s investment in Unocal, an oil and gas company, is unethical and hypocritical. By conducting business in Burma, BAM argues, Unocal contributes to the human rights violations of the Burmese junta, which includes systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, and the stifling of political dissent. Thus, Harvard is guilty by association.

But while we sympathize strongly with BAM’s concerns—the actions of the Burmese junta are deplorable and efforts to dismantle the regime should be pursued—we believe that their calls for divestment are misguided; they should be focusing on other means to achieve their goal.

Many activists link Unocal’s involvement in a Burmese oil pipeline as a way in which the company is complicit in gross human rights abuses, pointing to forced labor and mandatory relocation of residents in the area. But it seems that BAM should check the facts.

According to the most recent Securities Exchange Commission filings available, the Harvard stake in Unocal is approximately $2.1 million. However, BAM’s call for divestment from Unocal has a critical flaw: Unocal is no longer invested in Burma. Unocal has formally sold its stake in the oil pipeline that was the subject of much controversy, and they have settled two separate cases with EarthRights International regarding the issue. In fact, according to annual reports, Unocal currently has no involvement with any onshore Burmese operations; their only current local affiliation is with an off-shore drilling operation that has not been accused of any human rights violations.

BAM’s misdirected call for divestment implies that perhaps their cause could benefit from better research. Without properly considering all the options before taking such a drastic step such as calling for divestment, BAM loses legitimacy and value. BAM should not attempt to capitalize on the success of the PetroChina cause, since the situations are entirely different. PetroChina had a concrete link to business in Sudan and the state-sponsored genocide. The company appeared to be a back-door way to unethically invest money in Sudan, given that the U.S. prohibits any direct investment in Sudan. Unocal, since it lacks substantial business in Burma, is a useless target for divestment, and thus it obviously falls far from the extreme burden of proof needed to call for the University’s divestment.

BAM should spend more time researching possible alternatives to help the situation in Burma. While one cannot necessarily claim a causal link, oil seems to be a common link between companies and repressive regimes. Perhaps BAM should look into the effect that oil consumption has on these regimes. That is, it’s conceivable that a regime would be crippled if cut off from its oil revenue. It might be useful to explore the possible benefits of promoting alternative energy sources and energy consumption on campus.

Ultimately, a comprehensive discussion needs to be held on the possible methods by which student groups can help combat repressive regimes overseas. We hope that divestment, an issue that requires egregious circumstances and extraordinary evidence, will not be seen as the first way to garner attention for a cause.