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Harvard and the Junta

By Daniel J. Hemel

At the annual kick-off event of the University Committee on Human Rights last month, President Drew G. Faust said, “I can think of all different kinds of opportunities for teaching and learning in human rights to impact the curriculum.” But Harvard is not only in the business of teaching and learning; it’s also in the business of investing, with an endowment valued at $34.9 billion. And if Harvard’s commitment to human rights is sincere, the commitment must apply not only to the curriculum, but to the University’s stock portfolio as well.

Yet at least one of Harvard’s investments flies in the face of the school’s commitment to human rights. In its most recent filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Harvard reported owning 172,246 shares of stock in Chevron Corp. If the University has held onto those shares—and there’s no reason to believe it hasn’t—they would be worth more than $15 million today. Chevron, meanwhile, owns a 28.3 percent working interest in a production and pipeline venture in Burma. By Chevron’s own account, the venture yielded an average of 683 million cubic feet of natural gas each day in 2006.

At 37 percent of the country’s export revenue, natural gas sales are the lifeline of the Burmese junta. But Burma’s gas income does not trickle down to the country’s 52 million people, more than 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Rather, these petrodollars sate the junta leaders’ appetite for luxury goods and lavish mansions. More disturbingly, according to the Burma Campaign UK, nearly half of the government’s revenue goes to the military. These dollars paid for the guns that were used last week to shoot down Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists who were protesting peacefully against the regime’s abuses.

The Burmese government admits that 10 people were killed in last week’s protests, although British and Australian officials say the real death toll is many times higher. Unfortunately, last week’s murders were only the latest in a long list of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the junta. Well over 1,000 pro-democracy activists—including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi—are now being held in prison and under house arrest. Even more disconcertingly, the Burmese military has destroyed more than 200 villages in the ethnic-minority Karen state, according to Human Rights Watch. The rights group estimates that more than 500,000 Burmese civilians have lost their homes as a result of the junta’s campaigns against ethnic minorities.

Since 1997, the U.S. has responded to these rights violations through sanctions that bar new investment in Burma. Chevron acquired its stake in the Burmese joint venture eight years after the onset of the sanctions, when it purchased rival Unocal in 2005. But since Unocal’s stake in Burma predates the 1997 sanctions, and thus is not a “new investment,” Chevron can keep its stake in the joint venture under federal law. In fact, the joint venture has continued to expand production in Burma since 2005. It added another wellhead platform last year, generating new natural gas revenues that enrich and entrench the country’s junta.

Historically, Harvard has been reluctant to let human rights considerations affect its investment decisions. But on rare occasions, the University has dropped its holdings in firms that have close ties to particularly reprehensible regimes. In response to the Darfur genocide, Harvard sold its stake in the oil company PetroChina in 2005. The Harvard Corporation, the school’s seven-member senior governing body, cited a “unique pattern of circumstances relating PetroChina to the crisis in Sudan”: oil revenues from a PetroChina-backed project have funded Sudanese weapons purchases, enabling the regime to slaughter innocent civilians. (The following year, Harvard added a second Chinese oil company, Sinopec, to its divestment list.)

Burma is not Sudan. Some observers believe that the Burmese junta’s campaign against ethnic minorities is a “genocide” under international law, but the death toll has not yet reached Darfur’s horrific heights. Still, Harvard should take little solace in the fact that the Burmese government has killed thousands (as opposed to hundreds of thousands) of its own people. The same “pattern of circumstances” characterizing the PetroChina-Sudan relationship is also present in the Chevron-Burma tie. Just as PetroChina’s parent company was a major player in the Sudanese oil industry, so too is Chevron a leader in the Burmese natural gas sector. Just as oil revenue props up the Sudanese regime, so too does natural gas keep the brutal Burmese junta in power.

Harvard is right to use the divestment tool cautiously. Because its divestment decisions are carefully considered, Harvard wields a profound influence over other institutional investors. The University’s divestment from PetroChina in 2005 sent ripples through the world of institutional investment; since then, 20 state pension funds and more than 50 university endowments have followed Harvard’s lead.

But although caution is a virtue, complicity is not. If Harvard does not use the power of its purse to alter Chevron’s behavior, it will bear some of the blame for the horrors that are unfolding daily in Burma. On the other hand, if Harvard again catalyzes a divestment movement (as it did with its PetroChina decision in 2005), it will demonstrate that its commitment to human rights extends far beyond the classroom. President Faust says she is “think[ing] of all different kinds of opportunities for teaching and learning in human rights.” Hopefully she and the other Harvard Corporation members will think of leading in human rights as well.

Daniel J. Hemel ’07 is a Marshall scholar studying international relations at Oxford. He was managing editor of The Harvard Crimson in 2006.

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