March 2, 2007

C.U. Reflects on Darfur Crisis

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This article is part one in a series investigating the genocide occuring in Darfur and the role that Cornell chooses to play in the crisis.

Imagine all of Cornell’s students, numbering over 20,000. Now imagine a number 25 times larger — around 500,000 — and not of people, but bodies.

Understanding the on-going genocide in Darfur is no easy task, and the numbers vary with different perspectives.

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has said only 10,000 have died in fighting, and only seven of the 22 counties in the Darfur region have actually been affected, insisting, “The rest of the areas are very safe, and the people live normal lives.”

President George W. Bush has warned that Sudan must move to resolve the “Darfur issue,” and has called the atrocities in Sudan “genocide.”

“What the State Department or the U.N. never mention,” said Prof. John Weiss, law “is that this regime is multiply genocidal … 10 times as many people — and this has been validated by leading criminal attorneys and law experts — have been murdered than were by Hitler.”

Prof. Muna Ndulo, law, director for the Institute for African Development said, “Well over 500,000 people have been killed; 2.5 million have been displaced from their homes and 4 million people depend on the outside world for survival. The campaign against Darfur consists of the use of deprivation of food, murder, rape and extrajudicial executions to terrorize the people.”

According to Ndulo, the genocide in Darfur began in 2003, when the Sudanese forces and government-backed Arab militias, or Janjaweed, tried to crush two rebel groups. The group was fighting the Arab-dominated government to protest Khartoum’s marginalization of the region’s black Africans. The Sudanese government has denied responsibility and has placed the blame on rebel groups, such as the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice Equality movement. Bashir has also blamed the conflict on outside influences.

“The cause of the crisis is the interference from external powers,” he added, “mainly the United States.”

“Even if one were to accept the Sudanese government version of what is happening in Darfur,” Ndulo said, “it represents a monumental failure on the part of the Sudanese government in its duty to protect its people.”

The University, as indicated by President David J. Skorton, has an obligation of its own regarding the crisis in the Sudan.

During his inauguration speech in September, Skorton emphasized the need to bring “the expertise and heart of Cornell [to] the inner cities of our country and in Darfur.”

It was these sentiments that led to Cornell’s divestment from the Sudan in August.

“It is impossible for us to stand by idly and tolerate the complicity of the Sudanese government in this human tragedy,” Skorton said in a press release at the time. The University also barred investments of its endowment assets in oil companies currently operating in Sudan and in obligations of the Sudanese government. According to the administration, more than half of the Sudanese government’s revenues are derived from oil.

Steve Golding, executive vice president for finance and administration, explained the process that resulted in the divestment. According to Golding, Peter Meinig ’71, chairman of the Board of Trustees, requested a hard look at the University’s investments with regard to Sudan. The result was a report of the University’s assets invested in the Sudan, which included how other institutions were dealing with the crisis. Promptly after his arrival, Skorton, upon reading this report, made a recommendation to the trustees, who voted for divestment.

Golding described the initiative as consisting of two strategies, one is concerned with the investment aspect, and the other aims to explore collaboration with faculty across the university regarding “other initiatives in Sudan and Africa more broadly.”

The investment office then “made a decision to hire a firm which tracks stockholdings, that now provides the office with an ongoing up to date list of companies that are providing royalties to the Sudanese governments,” Golding said. “We sold four companies. …The evaluation was a little more than 20 million dollars in terms of direct holdings.”

He added, “While we cannot tell [our mutual fund companies] to divest because we are only one of a number of investors, we have asked them to look at this issue and talk to other investors.”

“Divestment is not enough,” Skorton said in his inauguration address. “ Provost Martin and I are pursuing other avenues. … We will seek the good counsel of our faculty, staff and students as to ways by which the Cornell community can effectively educate itself about this and other areas of Africa.”

“My office, under the provost’s leadership, works to strengthen the University’s international programs and activities,” explained Prof. David Wippman, law, who is vice provost for international relations. “Once the President indicated a desire to do something positive beyond divestment, the provost asked me to work with her and others to identify options.”

He has since worked with Ndulo, Prof. Salah Hassan, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center, and Nicholas van de Walle, director of the Einaudi Center, as well as a number of other faculty.

“I have also consulted representatives of human rights organizations, the U.N. and the U.S. government. With these various sources of input, I developed a list of options for discussion with the president and provost,” Wippman said.

He also described future actions for the University, mentioning support of various public awareness efforts and academic research related to the Sudan, the potential joining of the Scholars at Risk network, the hosting of various writers and scholars from the region who cannot continue their work at home due to the conflict, and the collaboration of a number of faculty to put together a strategy workshop on preparing for peace in Sudan.

The issue of understanding the genocide in Darfur is especially timely for Cornell with an upcoming, student-organized Darfur Week at the end of this month.

According to Ray Bai ’07, president of Students for Tolerance, Awareness, and Remembering Survivors, Cornell’s genocide and Holocaust awareness and prevention group, the week is going to be co-sponsored by 13 student groups on campus.

“We have been working to bring in as many students as possible from all different backgrounds because we believe that this issue demands everyone’s attention regardless of their individual traits or beliefs,” Bai said.

Bai expressed approval at Cornell’s divestment from oil companies in the Sudan.

“Hopefully, we can work with the Cornell administration to come up with other effective ways to end the genocide in Darfur in whatever capacity we can,” he said.

Various members of the Cornell community expressed mixed feelings toward the University’s actions.

“I am colossally disappointed,” Weiss said in regard to Cornell’s progress in further action, “They get into a moral position where anything they do is a misguided, uninformed, ignorant, cynical gesture … simply to get an appearance of good will for Cornell University, at the expense of the Darfurians.”

Ndulo said that although “some might see [divestment] as highly symbolic, it is important. It sends a message that Cornell cares about the people of Darfur. In a crisis like this, every measure that contributes is commendable. As Martin Luther King said, in moral crisis like this one neutrality amounts to taking sides.”

Part two of this series will focus on student activism and perspective, while part three will focus on Cornell’s international policies as compared to peer institutions.