BURLINGTON -- It's been a long time since Achier Mou, a senior at the University of Vermont, heard good news about his native country of Sudan. Since he began college nearly four years ago, more than 400,000 of his fellow countrymen have been killed in the ongoing genocide. Another 3.5 million have been driven from their homes, and 90 percent of their villages have been looted and burned. Four million others, most of whom reside in Sudan's Darfur region, still live under the daily threats of disease, starvation, rape, torture and murder. Mou himself doesn't know how many of his family members, including his mother, have fared.
But last week, Mou finally had something small, albeit important, to smile about. The UVM Committee on Socially Responsible Investing voted unanimously to recommend that the board of trustees adopt a policy of "targeted divestment" of companies that do business with the Sudanese government.
The decision was reached shortly after Mou and fellow UVM senior Jeffrey Skoldberg gave the committee an hour-long presentation on the history of the Sudanese genocide, as well as on divestment strategies that have been adopted by other colleges and universities around the United States.
"Targeted divestment" involves severing financial ties with companies that provide financial and/or military support to the Sudanese regime in Khartoum, but not companies whose work benefits the civilian population. Targeted divestment is generally aimed at the oil, energy, weapons and telecommunications industries.
Mou explained that the Sudanese government has been funding its genocidal war largely though oil profits, which account for nearly three-quarters of that country's annual revenues. "No money goes to civilians," Mou told the committee. "There is no Social Security. There are no roads. It all goes to buying weapons."
Skoldberg, a UVM business major, acknowledged that divestiture may be "a difficult and complicated thing to do," because UVM is invested in several pooled funds with other large institutions. Moreover, he admitted that the impact on Sudan of UVM's divestment would, by itself, be minimal. Currently, the univeristy has $39.1 million invested in non-U.S. equities; it's unclear what percentage of those holdings would need to be sold off.
Nevertheless, Skoldberg pointed out that UVM's divestment would have a cumulative effect. Colleges and universities such as Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Dartmouth, Stanford and Brown have already stopped investing in Sudan-friendly companies. In fact, when the Board of Regents of the University of California -- which holds about $10 billion in direct foreign investments -- voted to divest on March 16, it marked the largest financial withdrawal from Sudan to date.
"If ever there was a line in the sand to be drawn on investments, surely genocide crosses that line," Skoldberg said.
Mou and Skoldberg are members of the campus group Students Take Action Now: Darfur, or STAND, which has been urging UVM to adopt such a policy. Last week, the group held a campus-wide educational campaign on the Darfur genocide, which included teach-ins, talks, fundraisers and films. The group also erected a "Sudan field of flags" on the campus green, with 980 flags, each representing 5000 Sudanese murdered since the end of British colonial rule in 1956.
The UVM Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, which is comprised of students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees, made a decision that was "lightning-fast" by administrative standards, noted committee Chair John Snow. The speed reflected both the urgency of the crisis and STAND's thorough work on this measure, he said. STAND only approached the committee in February with its divestiture proposal, and committee members deliberated less than 15 minutes before reaching a decision. Snow recommended that the motion be considered at the next meeting of the university's Investment Committee. If approved, the matter will go before the full UVM Board of Trustees in late May.
Currently, three states -- Oregon, Illinois and New Jersey -- have passed Sudan divestiture laws. Twenty-three others, including Vermont, are considering similar legislation. Last year, Vermont Sen. Matt Dunne (D-Windsor) introduced a Senate resolution calling on the three state retirement boards to work with state Treasurer Jeb Spaulding to implement a policy of disinvestment from Sudan.
Since then, Spaulding has been participating in a working group with other state treasurers' offices and public pension funds to try to be "agents of positive change" in Sudan. Their approach appears to be more one of "constructive engagement" with companies that do business in Sudan, rather than blanket divestment, however. Vermont's three public pension funds total about $3 billion.
DARFUR GENOCIDE by the numbers
400,000 Estimated number of Sudanese murdered since 2003.
5000 Estimated number of Sudanese being killed per month.
3.5 million Number of Sudanese displaced from their homes since 2003.
90 Percent of Darfur villages destroyed by Janjaweed militias.
55,000 Number of residents who lived in Mershing, South Darfur.
400 Number of militiamen who destroyed Mershing in a February 2006 attack.
220 Number of children separated from their families in the attack.
13 Number of infants trampled to death.
1 Number of days later when a senior State Department official said, "There isn't large-scale organized violence taking place" in Darfur.
Source: International Crisis Group.