Darfur activists pressure investors to divest

Protests by Darfur activists on Sunday included this "die-in" on Boston Common in Boston.Chitose Suzuki / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Activists trying to protect civilians in Sudan's Darfur region on Tuesday stepped up their campaign aimed at investors, saying Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and Fidelity Investments are "supporting the genocide" and receiving word that Ford has stopped selling its Land Rover vehicles in Sudan.

The Save Darfur Coalition urged Berkshire Hathaway and Fidelity to withdraw from investments in Petrochina, a major investor in the government-owned oil exploration in Sudan. PetroChina is China’s No. 1 oil producer and a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Company.

Armed with the kind of tactics that helped end apartheid in South Africa a generation ago, the Sudan divestment campaigners believe they will succeed where politicians have failed. It is part of a growing movement to bring citizen pressure to bear that saw protests around the world on Sunday.

The campaign, focusing on the lucrative oil industry, is pressuring certain companies to leave Sudan, where the government is accused of arming janjaweed militia blamed for widespread rapes and killings of Darfur civilians. Campaigners also are encouraging investors across the globe, from banks to retired teachers with pension funds invested in companies doing business in Sudan — to take their business elsewhere.

Billionaire Warren Buffet has agreed to include the divestment request when Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meet in Omaha on Saturday. The holding company has 2.3 billion shares of PetroChina. Coalition Executive Director David Rubenstein praised Buffet as an “American icon” who wants to do good things in the world.

Eric Cohen, another coalition leader, said Fidelity has rejected discussion. At the end of last year, Fidelity was the largest owner of PetroChina stocks on the New York Stock Exchange.

Purchasers of certain Fidelity mutual funds become investors in PetroChina “and unknowingly are providing financial support to the Sudanese government,” said Adam Sterling, director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force.

Fidelity responds
Anne Crowley, a Fidelity spokeswoman, said the Boston-based company “complies fully with all the laws when we buy or sell securities on behalf of the funds.” She said that “includes those that the U.S. government has put in place that effectively prohibit U.S. investors from investing in companies that are owned or controlled by the government of Sudan or an instrumentality of the government of Sudan.”

Crowley said the information the coalition is using regarding Fidelity’s holdings is four months old and “Fidelity’s holdings may very well be different today.” She said, however, “we do not comment on our current fund holdings because we do not believe it is in the best interest of our mutual fund shareholders.”

Still, Crowley said, “any suggestion that we support or are funding the tragedy in Sudan is patently false.”

The Darfur region of Sudan has been torn by violence since 2003, with African tribal rebels targeted by militias that observers say are supported by the government. At least 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have become refugees.

The U.S. government accuses the Sudanese government of complicity in genocide and International Criminal Court prosecutors have said there is a clear link between Sudanese authorities and the janjaweed militias blamed for much of Darfur’s bloodshed. Sudan has rejected the allegations.

Land Rovers used by militants?
Also Tuesday, it was revealed that Ford Motor Co.’s Land Rover vehicles are no longer being sold in Sudan after the Securities and Exchange Commission asked the company about reports that some Land Rovers may have been used by military or paramilitary organizations the African nation.

The SEC on Tuesday released a letter dated Jan. 5 from Don Leclair, Ford’s chief financial officer, who was responding to a Dec. 15 letter of inquiry from Cecilia D. Blye, chief of the SEC’s Office of Global Security Risk.

An SEC spokesman said such correspondences are not released to the public for at least 45 days, following the completion of their review by the agency.

Leclair’s letter says the company’s Land Rover subsidiary had reached an agreement “in recent months” with its United Kingdom-based distributor that handles all sales to Sudan “that no further sales of Land Rover vehicles will be made into Sudan for any purpose.”

Leclair’s letter was in response to the letter from Blye that says, in part, the SEC is “aware of published reports alleging links between Sudan’s Ministry of Interior and activities of the Janjaweed militia in Darfur. We also are aware of published reports that the Janjaweed and Sudanese military forces use machine gun-mounted Land Rovers” during incursions against civilians in Darfur, a region in western Sudan.

Blye asked Leclair to address the potential affect that such reports could have on Ford’s reputation and share value.

Rolls Royce left, too
For groups hoping to stop the violence in Darfur with economic pressure, Rolls-Royce’s announcement last month that it was withdrawing from Sudan was a milestone.

Rolls-Royce PLC was high up on a hit list drawn up by the activists. The company, which supplies diesel engines to the oil and gas industry in Sudan, announced it was starting a gradual pullout.

Anoushka Marashlian of Global Insight, an independent market analysis firm, said Rolls-Royce’s decision shows that companies are worried about the negative publicity of doing business in Sudan.

“I think at a private level (Sudanese government officials) are worried this could produce a ripple effect and deter others from Sudan,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to amend their conduct.”

Rolls-Royce was one of the “top dozen” targets of the divestment campaign. The British company has not publicly acknowledged that the campaign spurred it to withdraw, but cited “international humanitarian concerns” in its decision.

“We just felt that this was the time to review the position and that prompted the decision we made,” said Martin Brodie, a company spokesman.

French oil services company Schlumberger Ltd., another on the activists’ hit list, was discussing the nature of its involvement in Sudan with the Sudan Divestment Task Force, according to Schlumberger spokesman Stephen Whittaker.

Investments called a positive catalyst
Maria Hamilton, spokeswoman for Lundin Petroleum AB, a Swedish company on the list that is involved in exploratory drilling in Sudan, argued that oil revenues were helping to rebuild the country. She noted that war-battered southern Sudan, just emerging from its own war with Khartoum, depended on oil revenue for reconstruction.

Helped along by the involvement of celebrity actors George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and links between evangelical churches in the U.S. and southern Sudan, to date, 10 U.S. states and more than 40 universities have agreed to divest their funds from Sudan, according to Adam Sterling, Task Force director.