Genocide and the Bottom Line

Brian Thill writes that it is time for colleges to take a stand -- with their endowments -- on Sudan.

March 10, 2006

The lucky ones in Darfur do not get their eyes gouged out or their ears lopped off with machetes. They are not castrated and left to bleed to death in the dust. They are not trapped in their homes and burned alive. The lucky ones survive, for a time. Fleeing into the desert without their husbands and fathers and brothers, who have been slaughtered by the Janjaweed militia, some of them manage to make it to the overflowing refugee camps, where there is never enough food or water. Each day in the largely unguarded camps, the women decide which of them will venture out to collect the firewood they need to cook their insufficient meals, knowing that there is a good chance that they will be raped while out scavenging. Their villages destroyed, their family members gunned down or cut to ribbons with rocket-propelled flechettes, these survivors await the arrival of the aid trucks that have escaped ambush. When the water gushes out from the hose, they shove aside the others who are dying of thirst and get down on their hands and knees to lap up the muddy water.

At this point in history the graphic details of what is taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan should be completely unnecessary. If there is a lesson that we have not yet learned from the 20th century, it is that genocide should require no narration. We should not need to hear the gruesome facts over and over again in order to act. We should not need to see the horrifying images that have been smuggled out by those who have risked their lives to make vivid the suffering and misery in Darfur.

There is no longer any question as to whether or not genocide is taking place in Darfur. Nor is there any doubt as to the potential efficacy of targeted divestment -- in which colleges sell their endowment holdings in businesses linked to the region’s leaders -- as an economic strategy for bringing about transformations in the political sphere and stopping the bullets that cut through the soft flesh of infants. Sudan’s campaign of genocide depends on its sizeable foreign investments in companies whose stock is held in the portfolios of many colleges and universities and public pension plans.

Divestment from these companies is more than a symbolic gesture; it is a form of economic action with demonstrable consequences in the political sphere. As more colleges, state pension plans, and individuals divest from the companies in question, the Sudanese government will come under increased pressure to put an end to the genocide. Likewise, targeted multinational companies, concerned with their bottom line (if not with human life), will in turn begin to pressure the Sudanese government to put a stop to the slaughter. If the government does not take appropriate action, and stock prices continue to drop, these companies will be forced to abandon their stake in Sudan.

Knowing all of this, the only real questions that need to be asked of those of us involved in higher education are these: What will be the role of academe at this moment in history? For what principles will its students, faculty, staff, and administrators stand? And if we do not act now in hopes of putting a stop to the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, what exactly are we here for?

Trustees of universities are charged with fulfilling a range of fiduciary obligations. These are legitimate duties that have a tangible impact on the economic survival and material conditions of every institution. But if the college is to remain anything more than an extension of the corporate world, or is to perform any useful functions aside from its ability to train generations of students as a labor force, then it must recognize its other obligations as well: to contribute to the betterment of society; to work to improve the condition of human life; to foster a commitment to public service; to challenge the present; to provide public leadership; to speak truth to power; and to play a critical role in the formation of social attitudes. Without a commitment to these obligations, colleges and universities have failed in their mission. Clearly it is unfeasible for divestment to become a tool for addressing every injustice in society. Divestment can work only if it is applied in those special cases where the atrocity it is meant to combat is of such magnitude that no reasonable person would object to its application. My argument is not that divestment should become a common tool for expressing our commitment to our many obligations, but that, as a crime against humanity and an affront to fundamental principles of human dignity, genocide constitutes a special case.

While many board members are sympathetic to the plight of the victims of genocide, they may still believe that divestment as a moral and political strategy is an idealistic luxury they cannot afford. If genocide does not constitute a special case, and if trustees are not interested in contemplating the pictures of the dead, or hearing about the horrors taking place daily thousands of miles away, perhaps they would be interested to know that this campaign is no longer confined to internationalist do-gooders, anti-capitalist radicals, or passionate youth who cannot appreciate the terrible burdens of governance and compromised principles in the "real" world. In addition to looking to the examples set byBrown, Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities and Amherst and Dartmouth Colleges,  and a growing list of other institutions, I recommend that they consult an article in the latest issue of Forbes, in which the author notes that the Sudan divestment movements are not just gathering substantial momentum in state legislatures and on campuses across the nation (including the large network of campuses that comprise the University of California), but even among investment consulting firms. And as all of us in the market economy know, when investment consultants start to take notice of social activism, things must be getting serious.

So let us assume for the moment that we can live with the fact that our universities invest in companies that engage in unfair labor practices or have histories of systemic sexual harassment in the workplace. Let us assume that we can tolerate the fact that our institutions profit from investment in companies that have a hand in manufacturing complex weapons systems designed to kill human beings. While we’re at it, let us also assume that we can sleep at night knowing that our campuses afford new building projects and research grants and retirement accounts by owning shares in companies directly responsible for widespread environmental destruction. Are any of us honestly willing to grant, however reluctantly, that genocide is but another of these regrettable consequences? Will we also be complicit in genocide, as we are complicit in these other catastrophes?

If we are not yet prepared to act against all of these, let us begin by taking a stand against genocide. Let us dare to draw at least one line in the sand -- at least one point at which we are compelled to break with our commitments to our own immediate national, institutional, and personal needs and desires. For there can be no toleration of genocide, no convincing case to be made for accepting its existence in the social order. Whether one believes in man’s capacity to achieve universal peace and harmony on earth or sees in humankind an ineradicable thirst for power and violence, genocide must not stand.

The responsibility for widespread slaughter and suffering includes more than just the perpetrators themselves; it is shared by all who turn away from what is unpleasant and do nothing. While we monitor our investment portfolios, trucks enter Sudanese villages under cover of night and carry off the town’s men so that they can be murdered out of earshot of their families. The surviving children are often so malnourished and dehydrated from their dangerous journeys out of their decimated villages that they do not even have the strength to beg for a drink of water. Instead, they flock around the handful of underequipped aid workers and point repeatedly at their swollen, battered throats. International volunteers are imprisoned for taking photographs of women who have been attacked, and military advisors are forced to stand by and watch the murderers set fire to granaries, homes, and entire communities. The bodies of the dead are left to bake in the desert sun.

The modern university invests in the global market in order to remain solvent, but it must play a role in the long fight for justice if it is to remain relevant. I call on all those who take seriously their commitment to the guiding principles of higher education to divest from the companies that have been identified as major contributors to the current climate of hell in Sudan. It is, quite literally, the least we can do.


Brian Thill is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California at Irvine and a member of the Darfur Action Committee. See these Web sites for more information on the crisis in Sudan and the divestment campaigns.


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