Politics & Policy

Divesting From Terror

Harvard students show the way.

Harvard students, demanding that their university end its complicity in genocide and terrorism, won a big victory this month. On April 4, Harvard announced its divestment from roughly $4 million worth of stock in PetroChina, the company responsible for bankrolling much of the Arab-dominated Sudanese government’s genocide against the black African population of Sudan’s Darfur region. The decision, which follows nearly a year of patient student activism, offers an inspiring example of the role that universities can play in the fight against terrorism.

Oil is Sudan’s only significant export besides refugees. Under U.S. sanctions, American businesses cannot operate in the country, which the State Department classifies as a sponsor of terrorism. Yet Chinese and European companies remain free to buy Sudan’s bloody black gold. Of these, the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), PetroChina’s parent, is the most important player. Others operating in Sudan include Germany’s Siemens AG, Russia’s Tatneft, France’s Alcatel SA, and Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum. France’s TotalFinaElf, which NRO readers may remember for its sweetheart deals with Saddam Hussein, also holds major concessions in Sudan.

By owning shares in these corporations, U.S. investors indirectly subsidize a terrorist campaign that has already killed, enslaved, or displaced more than 2 million Darfurians. Without oil revenues, the Islamist regime in Khartoum would be unable to fund its atrocities. PetroChina alone has invested billions in the country, building a major refinery and pipeline. Money from these projects allows the Sudanese government to buy tanks, helicopters, and artillery–often from China–to use against its own people. Sudanese government forces frequently use roads and airstrips installed by foreign companies in their attacks on civilian targets. The regime also helps its friends: Islamist militias have reportedly been used to clear people from land slated for oil development.

There is little data on just how much money American universities have invested in companies doing business with Sudan, but the extent of such investment is probably very large. A recent study by the Center for Security Policy (CSP) estimated that U.S state pension funds alone invest upwards of $180 billion in foreign corporations doing business with Sudan and other sponsors of terrorism. Divestment from these companies, CSP President Frank Gaffney notes, is “a way to privatize the war on terror.”

Harvard’s divestment campaign against PetroChina was cleverly managed. After an October 2004 article in The Crimson revealed the university’s holdings in PetroChina and detailed the company’s links to genocide, student leaders started petitions calling for the university to sell its shares in the company. Despite these measures–and overlapping Darfur “awareness” campaigns–Harvard actually doubled its stake in PetroChina during the last quarter of 2004.

Only when students threatened to divest from the university itself did administrators take notice. Harvard seniors traditionally mark graduation with modest gifts to the university, in a gesture that is supposed to start a lifetime of support. This year, student divestment advocates launched a program called Senior Gift Plus in which they asked classmates to make a donation to a private fund instead of the usual Senior Gift. Unless Harvard divested from PetroChina and put itself “on the right side of history” within the year, the money raised would be exclusively donated to human-rights programs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

According to Matthew Mahan ‘05, one of the leaders of Harvard’s Darfur Action Group, this tactic had a wonderful effect. Within two months, the Harvard Corporation announced that it would divest from PetroChina, citing the “unusual combination of circumstances presented by this particular holding.”

Yet Manav Kumar ‘06, who will help lead the Darfur Action Group next year, insists that Harvard’s divestment debate is far from over. Next year his organization plans to lobby for Harvard’s divestment from Sinopec, another CNPC subsidiary involved in Sudan, and for disclosure of Harvard’s Sudan-linked assets on foreign stock exchanges not subject to the same reporting requirements as stocks held on U.S. markets. They also hope to persuade the state of Massachusetts to sell off up to $1.4 billion dollars of its pension fund invested in companies doing business with Sudan.

Harvard’s divestment from PetroChina will not, in itself, deter that company from doing business with the regime in Khartoum. Still less will it restrain Islamist militias or the Sudanese Air Force from terrorizing civilians. It does, however, lend momentum to similar campaigns at other schools, including Yale, Williams, NYU, Boston College, U. Penn, Swarthmore, and Stanford. Few companies will be willing to deal with Sudan if they must face American investors outraged by corporate links to genocide and terror.

Satisfying though it is to see campus activists engaged in such an unusually good cause, the atrocities in Sudan should be of concern to every American. In the final analysis, the innocents of Darfur and Lower Manhattan are common victims of the same bloodthirsty ideology. Fortunately, events at Harvard show how well-organized and motivated citizens can stand up for human decency by refusing to be the indirect financiers of terror.

May there be more of this.

Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.


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