Is your retirement money helping support the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region?
Sudan has been in a state of civil war since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1956. But in the latest conflict in Darfur, Arab militias known as the Janjaweed --- backed by the Sudanese government --- have conducted a campaign of terror. Hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur have been raped, tortured, and killed, and many more have fled as refugees.
Since early 2000, more than a dozen activist groups have formed on college campuses and in cities across the country, with the goal of cutting off Sudan's war chest. A growing number of institutions and organizations are prohibiting investment of their funds in foreign companies with ties to Sudan. The University of Rochester joined that list recently, and other local colleges are discussing the issue. But the retirement programs of New York's teachers, police, social workers, and other government employees are apparently continuing the practice.
The New York State Teachers' Retirement System, the New York State Common Retirement Fund, and the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York are among more than 70 large public-pension programs cited on the website www.sudanactivism.com. They made the list because they are investing in foreign companies doing business in Sudan.
The Sudan Divestment Task Force, a non-profit research and information clearing house based in Washington, DC, has created a "watch list" of such companies. The Task Force isn't discouraging all investment in Sudan; crippling the economy will worsen the situation and impede democratization, says its executive director, Adam Sterling. The Task Force places companies on the watch list if:
• Their investment benefits only leaders in the Sudanese government;
• The company provides little relief to the disadvantaged regions of Sudan;
• The company has no policy about providing revenue to a country that is committing genocide.
Among the Task Force's activities, says Sterling, is distinguishing between companies that are making improvements in the country's infrastructure and those such as oil companies, where revenue has been linked to the weapons trade.
Despite public outcry, neither the US nor the United Nations has found a way to pressure the Sudanese government for its backing of the Janjaweed. Even before the Darfur conflict, the Clinton administration had imposed sanctions on Sudan for state-sponsored terrorist activities. The sanctions prohibited US firms from doing business in Sudan.
The policy has had mixed results, however. The US wasn't able to use its leverage to discourage other countries from doing business in Sudan. And following September 11, 2001, the State Department needed intelligence cooperation from the Sudanese.
But there's been another problem with sanctions: they don't apply to US investors in foreign companies. That money, mostly in the form of mutual funds, pensions, and other retirement investment programs, has continued to fund Sudan's brutal civil war. For example, in 2005, the New York State Teachers' Retirement System, according to its website, lists six companies that are on the Task Force watch list: ABB Ltd., Alcatel, Finmeccanica, Royal Dutch Shell, Schlumberger Ltd., and Siemens AG.
Thus, the Sudan divestment movement, which is following an approach similar to that of the South African divestment campaign of the 1980's and 1990's. That effort that is widely credited with helping bring about change in South Africa. But avoiding companies on a divestment watch list isn't easy. Most Americans have someone else managing their retirement accounts and may not know which companies are included.
There's also a huge knowledge gap. Some companies do business in Sudan but are involved in beneficial work like digging wells for clean water or building schools. And the US government has offered little in the way of guidance. In a written statement provided to City last week, the New York State Teachers' Retirement System said it considers the government "the only credible and centralized authority to identify, monitor, and report domestic and international companies that are operating in such countries and thereby may be acting contrary to US foreign policy and humanitarian objectives."
"At this time," said the statement, "no comprehensive list or report of such companies has been made."
The state Common Retirement Fund is managed by the state comptroller, and a spokesperson says the office has sent letters to a dozen companies asking them to "explain the nature of their relationship with the Sudan government."
For a fee, many investment companies will direct investments toward companies considered socially responsible. And Sterling's organization offers a free investment analysis to help identify suspect companies. It also generates a daily watch list.
Colleges and universities have been leaders in the divestment movement. Cornell, for example, was the first major university in the region to take action, and it serves as an information site for the Sudan Divestment Task Force.
In October, the University of Rochester's board of trustees agreed to "prohibit direct investments in companies identified as supporting the Sudanese government's activities in Darfur." (The decision was more of a positioning statement, since the UR has no investments in companies on the watch list.)
At NazarethCollege, Margaret Ferber, vice president of finance, says its senior staff is discussing how the college will respond to the atrocities in Sudan.
"We will take a variety of actions, including a review of our direct holdings within our endowment and perhaps just as important, develop appropriate educational programming to heighten community awareness of the human suffering," she says.
St. JohnFisherCollege is not currently using the watch list, according to a spokesperson, and has not decided if it will. RIT was contacted but did not respond in time for this article.
You can review your investment funds and look for companies on the Sudan Investment Task Force's watch list at www.sudandivestment.org.