Sudan divestment dialogue continues

A week after the University announced it would divest from all known oil companies operating in Sudan, campus activists are pushing for further changes while the issue continues to attract attention on the state and federal fronts.

On Thursday, a Connecticut state senator introduced a bill that would clear the way for the state pension fund to divest from companies doing business in Sudan. This action follows the call by President George W. Bush ’68 last Friday to increase international peacekeeping forces in the region. Meanwhile, campus activists and corporate watchdog groups say Yale’s decision to divest must be followed by further reforms in order to force the Sudanese government to improve its human rights record.

Activists applauded Yale’s recent move but said the University should take further steps to help alleviate the genocide in Darfur. Yale should also draft an official policy against genocide in order to speed its response to human rights crises, said Eric Bloom ’08, co-chair of the Yale chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur.

“That kind of policy could facilitate a quicker response to genocide,” Bloom said. “The genocide has been going on since October 2003, and [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell announced in 2004 that what was happening was genocide. That was two years ago, and the Corporation is only now acting on what’s happening.”

But Yale President Richard Levin said the University currently has a “fairly rigorous mechanism” for reviewing the ethics of its investments. For instance, the investments subcommittee of the Yale Corporation must approve the University’s holdings before they are acquired, and the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility reviews investments of concern brought to their attention.

The ACIR will seek input from the Yale community on the ethics of investments at its open meeting on March 27, ACIR chair and School of Management professor Geert Rouwenhorst said. The ACIR produced a report on Yale’s current investments in Sudan after hearing a presentation by members of the Law School’s Lowenstein Clinic at last year’s open meeting.

Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for Africa Lynn Fredriksson said divestment by universities will increase nationwide calls to end the violence in Sudan.

“Announcements like these by university officials at Yale and other prominent institutions are certainly important,” Fredriksson said in an e-mail. “Such a willingness to get involved is particularly important right now, since the Bush administration has just sent its request for peacekeeping and humanitarian funding for Sudan for congressional approval.”

Some corporate watchdog groups said universities form one segment of a necessary broader movement to force the Sudanese government to improve its human rights record. Corpwatch Executive Director Pratap Chatterjee said Yale’s divestment is among the more symbolic approaches to combating human rights abuses, comparing it to protests, lawsuits and United Nations sanctions.

“This is one arrow in a quiver,” Chatterjee said. “Will it have a financial impact on the country? Probably not, but it makes a statement. Every little effort counts.”

Members of the Yale chapter of STAND made calls to Connecticut religious and community groups yesterday in support of the bill introduced Thursday in the state senate. The bill would authorize the state treasurer to divest from any holdings in Connecticut’s $22 billion pension fund, following the lead of New Jersey, Oregon and Illinois.

“We’re trying to drum up grassroots support for the bill by contacting people across Connecticut [and] urging them to contact their constituent legislators,” Bloom said.

As of the divestment announcement last Wednesday, the University was in the process of selling all the stock it currently held in any of seven companies named for divestment, and Levin said the University is likely finished doing so by now. Yale only owned stock in one of these named oil companies, which include PetroChina and Sinopec, he said. The University does not publicly disclose its investment holdings for financial reasons.

“Yale’s portfolio is so highly regarded by others that disclosure could potentially cause some problems for us,” Levin said.

But according to Yale’s 13F filings for the past quarter — which identify the small proportion of domestic, publicly traded investments listed under Yale’s own name — the University maintains assets in at least a few companies closely tied to those targeted for divestment. It owns stock worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in British Petroleum PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp., which work with the targeted Chinese oil companies in business ventures such as refinery and gas station construction.

Bloom said that thousands of such links probably exist in Yale’s portfolio. But given the potential harm to innocent employees that could arise from divestment on such a large scale, he said the University should instead use its shareholding power to influence such companies’ policies.

“Once you start talking about secondary and tertiary linkages with what’s happening in Sudan, that seems like a situation that’s suitable to dialogue between Yale and those companies rather than divestment,” Bloom said. “They’re definitely a matter of concern.”

But BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said the company has a good record of conducting its business ethically, especially with regard to clean energy practices. In 2004, BP divested its $580 million stake in PetroChina.

“BP is a company that people can feel good about investing with,” Chappell said. “Yale is smart to have it in its portfolio.”

Amherst College announced Feb. 1 that it would refrain from future investments in nearly two dozen multinational companies operating in the Sudan. Harvard and Stanford universities and Dartmouth College announced in 2005 that they were divesting from Sudan.

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