A small step against horror

August 16, 2006

The University of Maryland's endowment foundation has joined 23 other college endowments around the nation in attempting to use its considerable assets as leverage to end the Sudanese government-backed genocide in Darfur.

In Maryland's case, the effect is likely to be negligible. The university system has no investments in the companies it has pledged to avoid, and most of its assets are in managed funds over which it has little control.

As a symbolic gesture, though, the foundation's decision is encouraging in that it reflects the growing success of the student activism that brought it about. At the same time, this small step only underscores the hopelessness of a horrifying situation about which so little seemingly can be done.

It's been three months since the United States helped broker a peace treaty between the Islamic regime in Khartoum and one of three rebel groups in Darfur whose challenge to the regime has been used as an excuse for an extermination campaign against black African Darfur villagers.

Yet violence continues to rage and has spread into neighboring Chad. Attacks on aid workers have increased, forcing withdrawal of humanitarian assistance just when it's needed more than ever. Khartoum has refused to admit United Nations peacekeepers to supplement the badly overwhelmed African Union forces. Meanwhile, the genocide of hundreds of thousands and displacement of millions has been eclipsed by new horrors in the Mideast and the plots of would-be terrorists.

The divestment campaign is intended to pressure Khartoum in a language it understands: by cutting off funds to companies that help finance the government but don't contribute in any positive way to the Sudanese population. U.S. firms are already prohibited from doing business with Sudan, but Americans can invest in foreign companies operating there.

So far the university system's endowment has identified only four companies - Chinese, Malaysian and Indian firms that support the Sudanese oil economy - in which it will not invest. More may be added, says Leonard Raley, president and CEO of the $700 million foundation. At least 20 firms have been identified as questionable by student activists.

Money talks. In this case, though, it's going to have to speak very loudly to be heard.

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