August 24, 2006

Skorton Announces Sudan Policy

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Cornell will divest from Sudan in response to the genocide in Darfur, President David Skorton announced on Monday. The University will bar investments of its endowment assets in oil companies currently operating in Sudan and in obligations of the Sudanese government, according to a press release issued by the administration. The government of Sudan has long been under fire from the international community for rapes and murders being perpetrated on tribespeople by so-called janjaweed militia in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. Skorton and local and national activists are enthusiastic about Cornell’s decision to divest from the country.
“Given that more than half of the Sudanese government’s revenues are derived from oil, the Cornell community is sending an unequivocal message to the oil companies about the impact of their own actions in this crisis,” Skorton said in a statement issued to the press.
“It’s very, very difficult to stand by and watch this situation and not try to alter it by reducing our support of the [Sudanese] government,” Skorton said in an interview with The Sun.
Skorton said that the University would participate in a “selective” divestment — not pulling every penny out of every company that operates in the Sudan but targeting companies that directly enrich the Sudanese government and in turn facilitate the government-sponsored genocide in Darfur.
Universities including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Yale, Stanford and the entire University of California system have already implemented divestment plans. Several states including New Jersey, Illinois, Maine, Arizona, Louisiana, Oregon and California have done so as well.
Skorton said that shortly after being appointed president in the spring, he read a May 4 story in The Sun about student activist groups and their actions to end the genocide in Darfur. Aware of the situation in Sudan as a national issue, Skorton said he then read a report on divestment executed by the University’s investment office, based on reports from several other universities. The report presented the case for a selective divestment from Sudan.
Skorton stresses that divestment is a strategy that ought to be used sparingly.
“In general I don’t think it’s wise to think about the university’s investments as a tool of public policy. The investments are to support the aspirations of the university,” he said.
He noted, however, that the situation in Sudan is unique.
“The government is directly involved in the genocide,” Skorton said.“Because of the unusual nature, because of the appalling nature of what’s going on in Darfur … in this particular case, direct action was appropriate.”
Skorton said that he and Provost Biddy Martin will move forward to address other ways to assist the people of Darfur.
Skorton referred to Cornell’s activist heritage, saying that that while “the main way that the university affects world events” is through research and education, political action is sometimes appropriate.
Cornell organizations, including the Darfur Action Group and STARS, a Holocaust and genocide awareness group, have been active in the past on Sudan and divestment. STARS had planned to agitate — with petitions and rallies — for divestment this fall, and leaders of both groups were surprised and pleased to hear of the university’s decision to divest.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that Cornell divested,” said Mariel Macher ’08, who is active in both groups. “It was,” she added, “completely unexpected.”
“It’s a sign of moral leadership at Cornell University,” Macher said. “We’re definitely not one of the firsts, but it’s fantastic that we’ve decided to divest as well.”
“Like [Skorton] said, [divestment] isn’t really a panacea for what’s going on in Darfur. But it’s a step in the right direction,” said Ray Bai ’07, president of STARS. “It seems as though our president has already taken the initiative on tackling this extremely important human rights issue.”
Prof. John Weiss, history, who advises the Darfur Action Group at Cornell, is concerned that the divestment is merely symbolic.
“It’s a move that is principally a symbolic move to establish the disapproval of the government of Sudan that is general among informed people in this country,” Weiss said.
“I’m not sure that it will do much to actually change the behavior of the government.”
The real effect, according to Weiss, is “calling attention to the longest ruling genocidal regime in history or at least in the 20th century.”
He said that DAG is exploring strategies to help the situation more directly – to aid in protecting civilians and aid workers and, ultimately, “reverse the genocide and allow people to return to their homes.”
Besides publicity for the movement to save Darfur, “you have to consider that [divestment] otherwise will not have a lot of effect,” Weiss argued.
Weiss said that even the United States government’s proposal — to replace African Union troops with UN troops — would be ineffective because of what he characterized as UN troops’ relative impotence.
“They’ll take more notes about bad things happening … but that’s about all they can do,” he said.
Still, Weiss, who will teach a spring course on genocidal regimes including Sudan, was optimistic about the University’s decision to divest.
“Symbols can in fact inspire people and can have results down the line,” he said.
Nationally, Portland, Maine-based activist Wells Staley-Mays is part of the movement to help the people of Darfur.
According to Staley-Mays, Portland is home to one of America’s largest populations of tribespeople from Darfur. With the help of organizations like the Portland NAACP, and PeaceAction Maine, activists spurred both houses of the state legislature to unanimous votes to divest $50 million from 18 companies that operate in Sudan.
The state pension fund, which would have to undertake the massive operation once the legislation passed, balked at first according to Staley-Mays.
“There was real resistance on the part of the Maine State Retirement System administration and employees,” Staley-Mays said.
However, less than one half of one percent of the pension fund was tied up in the barred companies, and the legislation gave the pension fund 18 months to divest.
Staley-Mays said that an appeal to the Republican Party’s origins in Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery was instrumental in successfully lobbying for the legislation. In addition to the atrocities being committed in Darfur, Sudan is one of the worlds most active slave-trading countries, with Arabs from the north enslaving and trafficking in black Africans from the south. The south was in rebellion against the north from 1983 through 2005.
In South Africa in the 1980s, Staley-Mays said, divestment was crucial to ending apartheid.
In the case of Sudan, he said, “It deprives Sudan of the money they use to purchase the weapons they use against the South and the West.”