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A Matter of Conscience

Olympic corporate sponsors must act on Sudan before the Games

By Joanna Naples-mitchell, None

The seeming intractability of a crime like genocide may prompt naysayers to question the efficacy of activism. In this paper, other writers have suggested that American citizens can do nothing more than “hope and pray” to stem such abuses. Given the magnitude and scope of global human rights violations, it is not difficult to see how resignation can become a reflex.

Perhaps, then, we can initially appreciate the resignation in Staples Incorporated’s statement in September 2007, that read: “Corporate pressure is no substitute for the coordinated international diplomacy that is required to resolve the conflict in Sudan.”

In the summer of 2007, the organization Dream for Darfur had asked Staples, the exclusive supplier of office furniture to the 2008 Olympics, to appeal to Beijing to curtail its support for Khartoum. China imports over two-thirds of Sudan’s oil, has invested as much as $15 billion in Sudan’s economy, has stonewalled past Security Council resolutions on the Darfur genocide, and bears responsibility for 90 percent of small arms sales to Sudan since 2004.

Not only does the Chinese government have immense political and diplomatic leverage over the Sudanese government, but it has been responsive to campaigns linking Darfur with the Olympics. In July 2007, Beijing voted in favor of the Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Shortly after Steven Spielberg resigned as Artistic Director of the Olympics, China declared that Sudan “should be more flexible” in allowing UNAMID to deploy.

Apparently this potential for indirect global change played a part in naming China the host of the 2008 ceremonies. The New York Times reported in July 2001 that the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) delegates “expressed widespread hope that a seven-year buildup to the 2008 Games would accelerate openness in China and facilitate improvement in its record on human rights.” IOC President Jacques Rogge recently called upon the Chinese government to respect its “moral engagement” to improve its human rights practices in the months before the Games.

But China shows few signs of wavering on a large scale, even in the face of renewed global media attention to its domestic human rights record and connection to abuses in Tibet, Burma, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

The government’s apparent reluctance to yield under this scrutiny makes Staples’s decision to keep mum on Darfur all the more misguided. This not to say that Staples was wrong to insist international diplomacy should come first—it certainly should.

Corporate pressure can, however, have an indirect impact on the trajectory of international diplomacy. Olympic sponsors have the ability to sign a statement of concern about the ongoing conflict in Darfur and to exert public or private pressure on the Chinese government to suspend arms sales to Sudan, press for full deployment of UNAMID, and support an immediate ceasefire and a comprehensive peace agreement.

This is not to paint Staples as a soulless corporation ready and willing to put profit before peace. Listed among Calvert socially responsible mutual funds, Staples stated in a 2005 report that its “corporate soul is centered on a rock solid belief in social responsibility and the desire to make a positive impact on our associates, customers, and the world.” Indeed, the board’s present inaction on Sudan only tarnishes an otherwise laudable record of corporate leadership.

Given Staples' public commitment to responsible practices (and Harvard’s proximity to both Staples’s headquarters in Framingham, Mass. and its president Michael Miles, a Business School graduate), the time is right to exert pressure on corporate leadership: either by sending letters to Staples’ corporate headquarters or attending a rally on Boston Common this Sunday. Instead of resigning ourselves to the supposed immovability of institutions, we should keep in mind the individual consciences involved in any organization, and speak to these when we say corporate responsibility means not only an abstract ethical obligation but an abiding duty to seize opportunities to make principled, responsible choices.

When confronting crimes against humanity, individuals need not leave all of the work to international diplomats. So long as an opportunity arises, one’s identity—whether corporate executive or Harvard student—should be all but irrelevant.

Joanna I. Naples-Mitchell ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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