BY ADINA LEVINE
On Thursday, November 18th the Darfur Action Group hosted a vigil on the steps of Memorial Church to protest the human rights violations occurring in the Sudan that has already killed more than two million people, and to advocate the university’s divestment from Sudan. The vigil culminated a week long campaign entitled “Not on Our Watch,” that included educating HLS students about the violations in the Sudan as well as organizing a letter writing initiative that yielded more than 750 handwritten letters from Harvard law students to their hometown senators.
“I worked in Sudan this summer, and when I got back here was frustrated by the lack of awareness amongst the student population about the atrocities taking place in Darfur,” said Bec Hamilton, MPP/JD ’07 who started the Darfur Action Group with other undergraduate and graduate students from HLS, KSG, GSE, and HSPH. “That there is a genocide taking place, right now as we sit in our classrooms typing away on our laptops, stressing about which summer job will be right, is not just a critical issue for HLS students – its a critical issue for all students, and, I would argue, for all people.”
The vigil hosted diverse speakers regarding the violations in Sudan, including Jesse Sage, Associate Director of the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), and Simon Deng, an Associate of the AASG and former slave from Sudan.
“The genocide and slavery taking place in Sudan places an onus on all free people to demand human rights for the victims in Sudan,” commented Liora Kasten, Communications Officer at the American Anti-Slavery Group. “Harvard Law School students should have a particular interest in the crisis as both slavery and genocide are not only grave humanitarian concerns, but gross violations of international law. If our international governing body is to have any credibility and viability, it will have to back up its laws with action. As future legal leaders, Harvard Law School students must take a stand.”
Students are further petitioning the university to divest from PetroChina, a Chinese oil company with ties to the ongoing genocide in Sudan, of which Harvard may own 34,500 shares, worth approximately $1.8 million. This represents less than 1% of Harvard’s overall investments. Though PetroChina originally advocated a “firewall” between it and its parent corporation, China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) that would prevent money from going to Sudan, a recent deal reported in the Financial Times asserts that PetroChina is negotiating to acquire full control over CNPC’s massive joint venture with the Sudanese Government.
“The US prohibits US-based companies from doing business with Sudan, but there’s a loophole,” explained Kasten. “Over 80 multinational corporations based outside the US, but traded on the US stock exchange, have business ties to the dictatorship of Sudan and both state pension funds and universities have holdings in these companies. We want students and community members to petition universities to sell their holdings in companies that do business with the brutal regime in Sudan.”
According to human rights activists, oil revenues from CNPC are helping to fund the Sudanese government’s providing weapons to the janjaweed militiamen who have destroyed scores of villages in the Darfur region of western Sudan over the past year and a half. The petition, started by Ben Collins and Manav Bhatnagar, two undergraduate juniors, calls for University President Lawrence H. Summers “to publicly state that the University will not invest in any corporation that conducts business with the Sudanese government for as long as Sudan is in violation of international norms of human rights.”
“Genocide is taking place in Sudan and Harvard’s endowment is helping to finance it, and will continue to do so unless the Harvard community demands that it do otherwise,” commented Collins. “Ultimately, whether or not Harvard divests depends on whether or not Harvard students want to make it happen, because when the student body has spoken with a unified voice in the past, as was the case with South African divestment, Harvard has responded.”
Harvard divested hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations involved in South African apartheid during the 1980’s for human rights violations, prompted by student activism.
“Harvard has historically been resistant to efforts to influence how it invests its endowment,” asserted Collins. “[But] unlike the deliberations over whether or not to divest from South Africa, which implicated large portions of Harvard’s endowment,
Harvard’s known investments in Sudan are relatively small. Given Harvard’s smaller stake in Sudan, we’re optimistic that Harvard will respond positively.”
The petition has so far generated more than 300 signatures, including multiple faculty members from all of Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate institutions.
“We all learned about the Holocaust, but we also heard the reassurances that “never again” would such a horror occur,” commented Hamilton. “Now, I am not saying that what is going on in Darfur is the same as the Holocaust – it is not – but when I was younger I remember thinking how inconceivable it was that so many people could have been killed in one part of the world, whilst people in another part of the world did nothing. Perhaps with the Holocaust you can argue that there was a lack of knowledge – but for Rwanda, or Darfur, there is no such excuse. In regard to Rwanda you might say that many in our student population were not of an age in 1994 to make their voices heard whilst over 800,000 were murdered – the same cannot be an excuse for us today. We are at a wonderful university that gives us the capacity to be heard, and we should be engaging with the world we live in to make the most of the privileged position in which we find ourselves.”
Similar divestment campaigns have been launched in Boston College and Adelphi University in New York, with the aid of the AASG.
“Just as the students in Harvard launched a petition to pressure Harvard to divest from PetroChina, which provides billions of dollars to Sudan through business transactions, we want universities across the nation to divest from companies doing business with Sudan,” asserted Kasten.
The American Anti Slavery Group is currently planning another candlelight vigil, centered around the theme of divestment from Sudan, which is scheduled to take place on Dec. 10th at the State House at 5:30pm. Students who want to get involved can find more information at www.SudanActivism.com or sign the petition at www.harvarddivest.com.