October 3, 2006

Divestment does more than send a message

Never again. Not on our watch. If these words ever held any meaning, they are being tested in the current genocide in Darfur, Sudan. They are being tested at the United Nations. They are being tested on our campus. For the first time in history, genocide has been declared while the massacre is still ongoing. Unable to hide behind ignorance, the University of Chicago, as an institution, must act and act now by immediately divesting; i.e. ridding itself of financial assets from companies that support the Sudanese government in its campaign of genocide.

To date, 90 percent of Darfurís villages have been destroyed, over 400,000 of Darfurs citizens have been slaughtered, and nearly 3 million have been displaced. Divestment from Sudan deprives the Sudanese government of the funds necessary to continue the genocide. The connection between foreign investments and the governmentís ability to conduct genocide has been extensively documented by Human Rights Watch, the Christian Aid Society, and the Coalition for International Justice. For example, one Human Rights Watch report indicates that more than 60 percent of Sudan’s oil revenues go to military expenditures, which have grown at an increasing rate since the genocide started three years ago.

Additionally, while diplomatic pressures have failed, the Sudanese government historically has responded to economic pressure. In 2001, a divestment campaign was initiated against Canadian company Talisman Energy, which sponsored the Sudanese government in its twenty-year civil war. Many Canadian institutions divested, causing Talisman’s share price to drop by 35 percent, which led to the companyís pullout from Sudan a year later. Divestment from Talisman Energy accelerated the signing of the peace treaty between Northern and Southern Sudan, which ended the 20-year civil war. Currently, the Sudanese government is buckling under the pressure of the divestment movement. This past March alone, it spent an estimated $1 million in ads condemning the divestment efforts.

What would be the impact of U of C’s divestment from Sudan? Through divestment, the University would join dozens of universities and city and state legislatures that have found sponsoring genocide through their financial assets to be unacceptable. As part of the divestment movement across the nation, the University of Chicago’s divestment from Sudan would directly influence the outcome of the genocide. As a leader among its peers, the Universityís divestment would encourage even more institutions to do the same.

Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who voted for divestment as a member of Amherst College’s Board of Trustees, endorsed divestment as one of the most effective ways of ending the genocide. Speaking on his new book, Making Globalization Work, at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs last Thursday, Stiglitz declared that universities are indeed not free from corporate social responsibility. In the case of divestment from Sudan, Stiglitz said that universities have the moral obligation to divest, especially when divestment would not harm the regular civilians of Sudan.

At the U of C, the University’s actions have been guided by the Kalven Report since 1967, which concludes that the University’s commitment to academic freedom precludes the University, as an institution, from taking a stance on social or political issues. However, there are exceptions. The report states that “in the exceptional instance, the corporate activities of [the] University may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.” In the global community, genocide and crimes against humanity are considered the worst sort of crimes punishable under international law. Indeed, when legal scholar Raphael Lemkin coined the term ìgenocideî after the Holocaust, he wished to define something that was unimaginably horrific, a crime that was the most reprehensible of all. If genocide does not threaten “paramount social values,” then what does? In this exceptional instance, the Report requires the University to carefully assess its corporate activities because they threaten paramount social values. Divestment from Sudan does not conflict with the University’s longstanding commitment to academic freedom, but rather fulfills the Universityís commitment to upholding paramount social values.

As president, Don Randel said, in 2004, that the Kalven Report does not prohibit the University from engaging with our city, the nation, and the world. In fact, as a multi-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise that employs over 26,000 people, the U of C cannot help but take sides on everything from charter schools in the surrounding community to the Oriental Institute’s Iranian artifacts. The challenge, as Randel reminded us, is to find appropriate sides to take. This past week, Vice President for Community Relations Hank Webber echoed President Randelís words by publicly apologizing for the wrong side that the University chose to take in the 30s and 40s. In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Webber apologized for the University subsidizing legal efforts to enforce restrictive covenants in the surrounding community. Webber called this time period “one of the darkest days in the history of the University” and asked the University to “face [the] skeletons” of its past. Our current President, Robert Zimmer, clearly believes in the need to choose sides when it is appropriate. Zimmer voted for divestment from Sudan as the provost at Brown University.

When the genocide in Darfur finally ends and the world is forced to face the skeletons of its neglect, we hope the University will not have to apologize for being amongst those who stood idly by. Let us be on the right side of history this time by making sure that our financial assets are not financing genocide.