May 4, 2006

Students Demand Divestment

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Top universities across the country have begun to divest themselves of assets with connections to Sudan as statements of opposition against that country’s genocide. Schools like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, the University of California system and Brown have taken part in the movement, which the May 8 issue of “The Nation” calls “the largest divestment movement since students helped to topple South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.”

For the past half-century, Cornell’s name has stood alongside these, acting as leaders in student political activism. The University even celebrated 50 Years of Activism last month. But Cornell is absent from the list of institutions that have successfully pulled financial support from the Sudanese government.

It is not even included in the group of schools that are in the midst of divestment campaigns – a list that includes the University of Maryland, Indiana University and the University of Virginia, among others.

This is not because Cornell’s finances are clear of any connection to Sudan. The University has at least $800,000 tied up in companies that support Sudanese oil production, namely the Russian oil giant Tatneft, according to June 2005 financial statements.

Uvinie Hettiaratchy ’06, president of Big Red Relief, said the Cornell student body has not become overwhelmingly vocal about Darfur in large part because of the American media’s veritable silence on the issue.

“Sadly, we are all very, very affected by media hype,” she said.

Hettiaratchy noted that Cornellians live in a bubble up on the hill and are usually difficult to reach out to. However, she said, “it’s been two years,” suggesting that it was time students spoke up.

Marielle Macher ’08 agreed, saying, “one of the reasons the tsunami relief campaign was so effective but Darfur is not is the lack of news coverage.”

According to an article yesterday, the three major evening newscasts have devoted less than 10 minutes total this year to the Darfur genocide, which has killed at least 180,000 and displaced more than two million from their homes since 2003. The Sudanese government is believed to be funding the roving Janjaweed militia (often with oil profits) as it kills, rapes and castrates civilians and demolishes villages.

Despite the media’s general ignorance of the crisis in Sudan, Macher said a small group of Cornell students are organizing fundraising and awareness campaigns. Macher herself is involved in the Darfur Action Group (DAG) and STARS, the latter of which promotes Holocaust and genocide awareness. Help a Life Organization (HALO) has also contributed to the quiet movement on campus, donating the proceeds of its A Painted Gala art auction to help buy medical equipment in Darfur for the second year in a row.

Loc Van ’07, president of HALO, said that while “the Darfur situation is definitely on people’s minds … The voice for Darfur is drowned out at Cornell because there are so many other causes being promoted on campus.” Van cited recent events that focused on local poverty, war, child prostitution, immigrant rights and LGBTQ advocacy.

Macher said a divestment movement is in its early planning stages at Cornell now, nearly a year after the national movement began. She said she hopes to have an online petition and events on Ho Plaza organized for next semester.

Andrew Garib ’06, a member of DAG who was very active last year, said he supports the divestment movement.

“I think it is outrageous that schools make revenue from the suffering of others,” he said. “Students should not tolerate the financing of genocide and authoritarianism in their school’s name.”

However, Garib added, financial withdrawal from Sudanese companies “will not stop the mass murder” immediately. He explained that DAG, under the leadership of Prof. John Weiss, history, has focused its efforts on research and independent lobbying.

But Macher and STARS president Alex Haber ’08 said they would hesitate to build a movement strictly from faculty.

“Faculty can be great allies,” Haber said, but Macher chimed in that “it would be great if there was a strong student initiative.”

Hettiaratchy, who said she initially wanted this year’s Big Red Relief proceeds to go to Darfur but was afraid the Cornell community would not embrace the cause as strongly, said that while there are students at Cornell who care about Darfur, “it’s a very select number of people. Unfortunately, it’s the same people who come out for any relevant cause.”

She suggested that in addition to faculty involvement, more hands-on study abroad opportunities or a required course on current events would help get students interested in world affairs.

Haber said that other universities have been receptive to requests for divestment. He noted that Cornell has so little money invested in Sudan (approximately .02 percent of its $4 billion endowment) that it will not be difficult for it to cut ties with those companies involved. Haber added that other universities that successfully divested, like Harvard, had significantly more money connected to Sudan. Harvard had more than $4 million tied up with PetroChina alone, an oil company that worked in Sudan.

Once the first wave of organization has taken place, Macher said, she expects more students to participate in the divestment movement.

“When people start seeing momentum grow, then they’re willing to get involved,” she said optimistically.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Writer