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Darfur Divestment?

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Two weeks ago, an anonymous diplomat at the United Nations leaked a confidential report to the press. Sudanese government officials, the report found, are packing airplanes full of bombs and guns, painting them white and stenciling "U.N." onto the wings, then flying them to the Darfur region where militias use the weapons to murder civilians.

What does this latest discovery of deceit, four years into a genocide that has already killed at least 200,000 innocent civilians, displaced 2.3 million and led to untold numbers of rapes, have to do with federal pay and benefits?

Possibly quite a lot, according to Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. Retirement investments in the Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k)-style program, may be helping to fund Sudan's atrocities.

The Save Darfur Coalition, an umbrella group of humanitarian and faith-based organizations working to stop the genocide, estimates that 70 percent of oil revenues Sudan receives from international oil companies operating in the country fund the military, including the planes in that U.N. report. Some TSP funds may be invested in these companies.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally active in the Save Darfur movement, donating both time and money to the coalition.

Lee is personally active in the issue, too. She has visited Darfur three times; the last time was just last month. She also was arrested for protesting in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington last summer.

"The situation in Darfur is deteriorating, more and more people are dying and even humanitarian aid workers are at risk," Lee said after her April visit.

She has reintroduced a bill (H.R. 180) that would require the Government Accountability Office to investigate TSP investments in companies supporting the genocide. It doesn't go so far as to ask for divestment, though it's clearly a first step on that path.

The Darfur divestment movement is gaining ground. Seven states, including California, and several universities have divested money from Sudan.

In 2005, Lee asked then TSP Executive Director Gary Amelio to respond for the record to Sudan divestment.

"The board must make all investment decisions solely in the interests of participants and the beneficiaries of the TSP without regard to other objectives, however meritorious," Amelio said.

When asked to respond to Lee's reintroduction of the Darfur bill, which has passionate backers from both parties, the board referred to its two-year-old statement.

The TSP has gotten a lot of requests over the years to change its investment policies for various reasons. The $200 billion in the plan packs an influential punch, and groups want that influence for their cause. The board's position on Darfur divestment is the same one it takes with suggestions to divest from Iran or environmentally harmful companies.

In April 2005, when Harvard University decided to divest from PetroChina, a Chinese oil company with deep interests in Sudan, Harvard responded to that line of thinking.

"Although Harvard maintains a strong presumption against the divestment of stock for reasons unrelated to investment purposes, we believe that the case for divestment in this instance is persuasive," university officials said.

Why? "This decision reflects deep concerns about the grievous crisis that persists in the Darfur region of Sudan and about the extensive role of PetroChina."

Lee's bill only seeks information on TSP investments, because it's impossible to know right now how much of federal employees' savings are in funds that include the offending companies. Once that is known, it might be in TSP participants' best interest to go to work as public servants each day knowing they are not funding genocide.

 
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