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I Protested for Divestment From Sudan. What Today’s Protestors Should Know

6 minute read
Warren is a Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He is co-leading a trans-partisan effort to protect the basic parameters, rules, and institutions of the American republic, and is the co-founder of Generation Citizen, a national civics education organization

As a former student activist, it’s been a surreal experience following the pro-Palestinian protests occurring at universities across the country. Almost 20 years ago, I helped lead national efforts across the country to divest universities, cities, and states from foreign companies aiding and abetting the genocide in Darfur, Sudan—the last effort that inspired massive divestiture action from institutions of higher education across the country. Despite our successful divestment efforts, the situation in Darfur is once again at a dire point, with a humanitarian disaster looming. This time, very few are sounding the alarm.

Looking back on our efforts to divest American entities from companies in Sudan, two critical lessons emerge: First, a targeted approach to divestment is crucial to any potential campaign victory. Secondly, divestment on its own, while potentially important, is ultimately an insufficient tool in materially changing the situation on the ground, especially without long-term, sustained activism and engagement.

In 2005, the genocide in Darfur captured the attention of thousands of college students across the country. Protesting a regime that massacred up to 400,000 of its own people through use of militia groups in the western region of Sudan, students organized massive protests in Washington, DC and their own campuses, pushed for congressional action, and engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Students also helped to lead a nationwide divestment movement, lobbying universities and states to pull their investments out of companies directly or indirectly aiding the government to carry out the atrocities. Ultimately,  35 states, including California and Texas, divested from Sudan, and over 50 universities participated in the effort.

I helped to lead national efforts as the Student Director for STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, and worked on successful campaigns to convince my alma-mater Brown University, the City of Providence, and the State of Rhode Island to divest their assets from Sudan. We engaged in a purposefully targeted approach, using research to determine lists of specific companies that were engaged in business activities that could be demonstrated to support and facilitate the Sudanese government’s internationally recognized genocidal actions and human rights violations. This list included Chinese and Russian oil and gas companies, as it could be proven that oil revenues helped pad the coffers of the murderous regime.

The divestiture efforts were also explicitly targeted at universities’ direct investments, which comprise only about 5% of most endowments. Indeed, in a case like Brown, the university was not directly invested in any of the companies targeted, but rather, put them on a do-not-invest list as a result of our efforts. The rest of the university endowment is invested in commingled or mutual funds (this reality did lead to students pushing fund managers like Fidelity Investments and Berkshire Hathaway to divest from Sudan). Recognizing that the primary responsibility of the investment office is to secure a high rate of return for fiduciaries, and not to make political statements, this targeted approach also enables investment managers to easily replace any divested assets with similar companies.

It’s difficult to speak to every university’s current demands for divestment concerning Israel, but focusing on Brown University’s campaign may be instructive. First, Brown’s response has stood out because the University Administration agreed to present divestment from Israel as an option to Brown’s Corporation, which is the equivalent of the Board of Directors. Given the vast number of universities that divested from Sudan, and in the 1990’s from South Africa, most institutions have a process in place to explore the financial action. Irrespective of their opinions on the merits of divestment in this case, it’s disappointing that, at a base level, most administrators are refusing to even explore these processes.

Read More: What to Know About the Global Boycott Movement Against Israel

Secondly, Brown’s campaign has been specific about its demands for divestiture. The students are not asking for divestment from every company linked to Israel (which is the unrealistic ask of Columbia University students) or even Israeli companies (which University of Michigan students want). 

Brown Divest has stated its goal is “divestment from companies which profit from human rights abuses in Palestine.” In that vein, the group has outlined criteria to identify such companies, including those that provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and those that provide products or services that contribute to violent acts. From this criteria, the students identified 10 specific companies that would be targeted for divestment.

This is not to argue that Brown should, or will, divest from these companies.  But the process of identifying criteria, focusing on a university's direct investments, and presenting recommendations to the Corporation for a vote are all responsible actions by the students and administrators alike. This targeted campaign is the only approach towards divestment that has any potential for success.

Even if targeted divestment efforts are successful, the most important question, which remains currently unanswerable, is whether these campaigns would actually make a difference on the ground.

Despite our successful divestment campaigns 20 years ago, Darfur is collapsing yet again. Sudan’s military is engaged in a fight for power with the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group, causing the biggest humanitarian crisis in decades. There are concrete actions that the United States can take, including pushing for negotiations, engaging in targeted sanctions, and leading anti-money laundering measures. This time around, however, there is essentially no domestic political will for taking action. Student activism has died out for the cause.

It’s counterproductive to engage in conflict comparisons between Gaza and Sudan. Student activists today would argue that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the Israeli government’s actions, whereas the situation in Sudan is less directly tied to our actions. Both situations, however, are tragic, and tens of thousands innocent human lives are being lost.

If student activists today want to make a difference in the situation in Gaza, there are lessons to be learned from our work in Sudan. First, if they want to be successful in divestiture efforts, the work needs to be targeted. And secondly, students must recognize that the work to push for a peaceful Middle East will take a generation.

I look at the protests today with a deep belief in the power of collective action and recognizing students’ rights to organize in the face of injustice. I also note that this issue is much more contentious than the genocide in Darfur, which was universally condemned by Americans. What is clear, though, is that both the protestors and university administrators need to change their tactics. It’s imperative that today’s student activists do not look back in 15 years with a situation in Gaza that mirrors, or is worse, than today’s morass.

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