By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 7, 2006
House members are scattering to their home states this week with inconclusive results on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan, but momentum is growing at the state level for governments to divest public funds from companies, mostly foreign-based, doing business with Khartoum.
In a victory for business lobbyists on Capitol Hill, lawmakers approved a Sudan sanctions bill stripped of language that would have endorsed states' rights to pass divestment laws. The National Foreign Trade Council, representing more than 300 multinational companies, had lobbied aggressively against the provision on state investments inserted by the House during its consideration of the bill last year.
A divestment movement, however, appears to be gaining momentum across the country, with active campaigns on university campuses and at city and state levels. Six states have already passed divestment laws: Maine, Connecticut, Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey and California.
Although state legislatures will not be in session until January, lawmakers in many states are pushing for divestment bills, according to Adam Sterling, the executive director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the issue.
Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington could consider some form of legislation early next year, according to the task force's Web site, which is tracking the initiatives and keeping a list of companies that warrant scrutiny.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's much-publicized signing of his state's divestment law -- standing alongside actor-activists Don Cheadle and George Clooney -- has helped spread popular awareness on the continuing violence in Darfur and given added momentum to the divestment drive, Sterling said.
The violence in Darfur began three years ago, when the Sudanese government, backed by a state-sponsored Arab militia called the Janjaweed, moved to crush African rebel movements in the fertile agricultural territory that has long resisted central government control of its resources. The conflict has left as many as 450,000 people dead and driven more than 2 million people from their homes.
Sudan has refused to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force into Darfur, and on Monday said it opposed an indefinite extension of an African Union peace mission there.
"At this point, we are approaching that critical mass where it is past symbolism," Sterling said. "We are already seeing a response from the Sudanese government. Last April, a press release from the Sudanese Embassy here urged institutions to stop divesting, and in a recent discussion with our campaign leader in Indiana, Beth Reilly, that was the only topic the Sudanese ambassador was interested in addressing."
The National Foreign Trade Council has argued that unilateral American sanctions will not alter the behavior of a government if other countries continue to do business with it. U.S. companies have been prohibited from conducting business in Sudan since 1997, when terrorism-related sanctions were imposed on the country, but some are exempt.
The Darfur Peace and Accountability Act (HR 3127), which passed last month with bipartisan support, urges President Bush to prohibit Sudanese oil tankers from entering U.S. ports and bans cargo ships that deliver goods to Sudan's armed forces. The bill also would deny visas to individuals implicated in the killing in Darfur.
"The bill is not bad, it is just incomplete," Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) said in a telephone interview from Boston last Tuesday. "I don't think that divestment will have the impact of shutting down the economy of the Sudan, but if it is just a penny it is worth doing -- you do what you think is right and you hope that it works."
"This issue can't wait any longer," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) warned this week, vowing to push for an amendment he co-sponsored with Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.) to restore the divestment language. "These are people who respond only to pressure, and one of our efforts is to push the Europeans who share our position on this to do more. It is unfathomable that . . . before our very eyes yet another genocide should unfold, specifically in Darfur. The Rwanda episode is still very much on people's minds."
The amendment calls for a halt to federal contracts going to international companies whose business in Sudan may directly or indirectly support the Sudanese government's military campaign in Darfur. Lee said similar measures against South Africa helped end apartheid.
While the sanctions campaign to end apartheid in South Africa took more than 20 years to show any effect, the Sudan divestment movement is only 18 months old. The effort grew out of an eight-month study group at UCLA and has quickly developed into a nationwide network.
Lee, who sits on the House International Relations Committee and serves on the Africa subcommittee, has been a leading voice in the divestment movement.
"So many people have died, we have to use every tool at our disposal," she said. "It is our duty to make sure pension funds don't have blood in their banks. It is the blood of genocide. We don't know how many companies are involved. We know there are $600 million in federal contracts, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have got to step up and do something."
There are no American companies that are directly involved, but at least two dozen multinational companies, mostly in the energy sector, have been targeted by divestment campaigners. Already, 3M and Xerox have restricted all operations in Sudan to humanitarian work, according to Sterling, and Royal Dutch Shell is engaging with human rights groups so as not to be perceived as complicit in atrocities.