Our Town downtown
June 4, 2007
On May 29th, President Bush singled out Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his Khartoum government for being “complicit” in the genocide that is ongoing in Sudan’s Darfur region.
According to figures made available by Human Rights Watch “at least 200,000 have died” in this crisis, and 2.5 million people are still displaced.
Sharon Silber, a co-founder of the NYC Coalition for Darfur, says that in the last three to six months, the violence has spilled over into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic, which have the largest number of Darfuri refugees.
During his May 29th speech, President Bush announced that since the Sudanese government has been uncooperative in helping to end the “bombing, murder and rape” of innocent civilians, the United States will enforce existing economic sanctions more aggressively, and impose new ones on the Sudanese government, companies connected to it, and specific individuals inside of it that have been identified as being responsible for the violence taking place.
President Bush wants the other U.N. Security Council member countries to pass a resolution designed to make it harder for the militias committing the violence to receive arms. The resolution would impose new sanctions on individuals obstructing the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, which was made between the Khartoum government and the country’s largest rebel group. And it would also create a no-fly zone to keep Sudanese military planes out of the region.
Bush said he will continue to push for the already-approved UN peacekeeping force that al-Bashir still refuses to allow into the country, and for funding for the inadequate, small number of African Union forces already on the ground.
By now, a large and growing number of Americans are aware of what is happening in this distant part of the world, one that would probably be even more obscure to them otherwise, due to the amount of coverage the issue is getting. Many are aware that the violence is being committed against African farmers in Darfur by militias made up of nomadic Arabs known as
“Janjaweed” (an Arabic colloquialism that means “a man with a gun on a horse,” according to Slate’s Brendan Koerner). And many realize that these militias are committing genocide with the tacit support of the Sudanese government.
Silber says President Bush, who named two senior members of the Khartoum regime and one rebel leader as targets of the new sanctions on May 29th, needs to go further by taking action against three more individuals who International Crisis Group recommended for targeting.
Silber, 52, and others like her, are at the forefront of an activist movement that is determined to do all it can to help end the Darfur crisis, through a variety of campaigns that include divestment in companies that do business with the Sudanese government; letter-writing to governments and institutions they feel can and need to do more; media projects; Congressional visits; and arts initiatives designed to raise awareness about the issue.
The Darfur movement is drawing people from all political persuasions, ethnic backgrounds, and generations to the meetings and other events that groups like Silber’s hold. “Even though we’re working in New York with people, most often who are Democratic, and most often are liberal, there are Christian conservatives, people on the right who have responded to this issue too,” she said.
Why this is happening seems easy enough to understand. After all, genocide is not an issue with various shades of gray. And the consensus among Western industrialized nations is that genocide is what this is. “Because we’re Arabs, we’re better than these people who are black,” is how Silber describes the philosophy of Sudan’s ruling party. And Sudan still has slavery. “[They] actually say, ‘kill the slaves’ when they kill these people. How could you not respond to that?”
Every time Silber adds the deaths in the current crisis to those of genocides the Sudanese government has committed in the past (in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains) she comes to a stark conclusion: “You have, possibly, the greatest number of state-sponsored, ethnic [killings] since the Holocaust.”
Although Silber, a psychologist, did not become involved in anti-genocide activism until she learned about the Bosnian crisis at a conference on European neo-fascism, in the early 90s, it’s not surprising that she found her way to the movement, given her background.
Silber’s father is a World War II survivor who, as a medical student in Lithuania, narrowly escaped the Nazi death camps when, in a twist of bitter irony, the Soviets shipped him to a labor camp in Siberia for being a Zionist. The Soviets still controlled Lithuania at the time. His family and all but a few people in his town were killed.
And, she says that were it not for his being sent to the front, as a doctor for the Soviets when they were fighting the Germans, it’s likely that he would have starved to death in the labor camp like so many others did.
In 1993, Silber founded Jews Against Genocide with Eileen Weiss, an actor and producer, in response to the Bosnian crisis, eventually forming a national coalition called The American Committee to Save Bosnia. The group’s work on Bosnia and Kosovo showed Silber the kind of impact groups like hers could have on world events through letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and an emphasis on Congressional lobbying. She says their efforts “really changed U.S. policy.”
Her work continued with East Timor and then South Sudan, before she turned her energies to Darfur.
Jews Against Genocide began working with other Darfur groups, notably with what was then NYU’s STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) chapter, which Isaac Rowlett, an NYU student, set up in 2005. (Now that group is called STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition).
And in winter 2006, these groups formed the NYC Coalition for Darfur
Silber wants to take a much stronger Congressional initiative this fall. She plans to meet with Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), among others, whose district includes Soho, Greenwich Village, Tribeca and Lower Manhattan. The largest number of coalition members lives in Nadler’s district. She hopes to get Nadler and other area Congresspersons to fight for increased pressure on the Sudanese government and divestment legislation.
Shin Inouye, Nadler’s communications director, writes in an e-mail that Nadler, a member of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, “is very passionate about the [Darfur] issue.”
Silber is encouraged New York State may divest its pension fund of companies that do business with Sudan. She is less encouraged, so far, that the city will follow suit with its pension fund.
One major campaign is taking place on Wall Street, and it involves putting pressure on mutual funds to divest themselves of companies that do business with the Sudanese government. Chief among these offenders are Chinese oil companies like PetroChina, China’s largest oil company.
PetroChina is the publicly traded subsidiary of China’s state-owned oil company, CNPC. And the Genocide Intervention Network calls CNPC “chief among Khartoum’s corporate sponsors,” in a report by its Sudan Divestment Taskforce.
On April 24th, the coalition held a protest against Fidelity Investments, which then held $1.3 billion worth of PetroChina stock, according to the group Fidelity Out of Sudan.
300 people stood in front of Fidelity’s Boston headquarters, and coalition members went around Wall Street handing out leaflets urging divestment.
On May 15th, Fidelity sold most of its shares of PetroChina and SinoPec, another Chinese oil company, on the New York Stock Exchange, and announced it the next day. But it neglected to mention that it still has shares in PetroChina and SinoPec on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Susan Morgan, spokesperson for Fidelity Out of Sudan, says, in a telephone interview, that Fidelity’s divestment on the NYSE is “good news, but it is only a first step.”
In an e-mail, Vincent Loporchio, a Fidelity spokesperson, wrote that “Fidelity does not tell its fund managers how or when to buy or sell any given stock. Each fund manager makes that decision based on his or her individual assessment of the stock’s value in their holdings.” He also mentioned that Fidelity offers several funds, through its FundsNetwork program, for investors who want to avoid putting their money “in companies operating in certain industries or in certain parts of the world,” that while not illegal to invest in may conflict with their “personal social or ethical values.”
With specific regard to Sudan, Loporchio writes that “Fidelity complies with all applicable laws when we buy or sell securities on behalf of the Funds, including those 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 any instrumentality of the Government of Sudan. Were our government to decide to enact new laws or regulations to broaden restrictions on investments, the Fidelity funds, of course, would comply with those laws as well.”
Morgan says that her group wants to meet with Fidelity, but Fidelity is not willing. She adds that Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company, is the largest American investor in PetroChina with approximately $3 billion in stock. One shareholder proposed divestment in PetroChina at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting on May 5th, but the proposal was voted down.
Berkshire Hathaway directed an inquiry from this reporter to Marc D. Hamburg, listed as Vice President and Principal Financial Officer in Berkshire Hathaway’s first quarter report for 2007. Since he did not answer the first of two voice messages, this reporter sent an e-mail with a list of questions to Berkshire Hathaway’s general e-mail address. (The receptionist who answered the phone would not provide Mr. Hamburg’s direct e-mail address.)
After calling a second time, the next day, and hoping to refer Mr. Hamburg to the e-mail, this reporter was transferred to Mr. Hamburg’s voice mail, and left another message, which Hamburg did not respond to by press time.
“To his credit, Warren Buffett has been very open and willing to engage in dialogue on this subject,” Morgan says. “And Mr. Buffett did not need to include it in the meeting agenda, but he chose to because he felt it was important to have a dialogue. Unfortunately he does not agree that he has an opportunity to influence the situation in Darfur.” Morgan hopes to continue talking with him, and convince him that he does.
In the coming weeks, quarterly filings will be coming in from a wide range of American mutual funds and Morgan’s campaign will be looking them over carefully.
The Public Theater played host in April to “In Darfur,” a workshop production, written by Winter Miller. $3 of every ticket sold went to “Darfur Beneficiaries.”
Miller is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s research assistant, and not surprisingly, the play is about a New York Times reporter, a Darfuri woman and a Western aid worker, who end up together in an internally displaced persons camp. “The Darfuri woman is just trying to survive, the aid worker is trying to … make up for something that happens on his watch that he’s somewhat responsible for, and the journalist is trying to get a front-page story, almost no matter what the cost,” so that Darfur will get coverage, Miller explains in a telephone interview.
Miller won a playwriting competition that required her to outline a play that she would write in association with someone from outside the theater world.
She did all the actual writing, but chose Kristof to help her with the research.
Of all the topics Kristof writes about for The New York Times, Darfur interested Miller because it “was the one that was entirely preventable.”
After she won the competition, she spent the next few months convincing Kristof to take her with him to Darfur. And in March 2006, she accompanied Kristof on a trip he was taking there. She stayed for a week.
They were along the Chad-Sudan border, and despite the fact that Miller was in the mountains of Laos about four months earlier, the poverty was like nothing she had ever seen.
“There weren’t enough resources, people were unsafe. We were driving past ghost towns, and people were completely unprotected … the land was just pretty unforgiving.”
At one point, Miller felt unsafe, herself. “We were talking to a man, and he was pointing to where his son had been bayoneted by the Janjaweed, and thrown to the ground … where they had sort of made a makeshift burial. And then he looked up and he said, ‘They’re watching us. They’re in the trees.’ So at that point, we kind of gathered ourselves up and got in the car, and drove away.”
She says the show has two elements, entertainment and theatrical value, and education and promoting awareness. “It’s not a history play. It’s meant to be done now. It’s meant to encourage people to go home, learn more about it, and do something about it. And that’s what’s particularly galvanizing about Darfur itself, is that it’s highly preventable.”
On April 29th, NYU’s STAND chapter, the coalition and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs hosted an event in Washington Square Park called “Global Days for Darfur.”
Essentially, it was a letter-writing event, but it also featured speakers and live music.
By the day’s end the crowd had produced almost 1,000 letters to congresspersons, senators, President Bush, Warren Buffett, and Fidelity Investments.
They also wrote three giant letters on behalf of the 1,600-plus destroyed Darfuri villages, which were reproduced for Fidelity, Warren Buffett and the President.
One package of letters was returned, from the Chinese embassy in Washington. “They opened them, they looked at them, and then they sent them back to us. So, we actually sent those on to [Save Darfur, in D.C.], hoping that they’ll try to re-deliver them,” Silber says.
To hear him tell it, Isaac Rowlett, who created NYU’s STAND chapter during his freshman year, was an unlikely candidate for human rights leadership and even activism. In high school, Rowlett, now 20 and a junior at NYU, wasn’t particularly political, and not especially concerned about keeping up on current events. He planned to study creative writing, he says in a telephone interview. But in an instant his focus shifted. It took place on a trip that he took “on a whim,” during his senior year.
March of the Living is an educational program for Jewish teens from around the world, that takes them on a walk from the Auschwitz to Birkenau death camps in Poland on Holocaust Memorial Day, and then to Israel to celebrate its independence and observe its memorial day. For Rowlett, who is focusing on Genocide Studies, Human Rights and Sustainable Development in The Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, the sharp change in course came during a visit to the Majdanek Death Camp, in the city of Lublin.
According to figures made available by The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an estimated 95,000-130,000 prisoners, at a minimum, died in the Majdanek system (Majdanek had subcamps), between November 1941 and January 1945.
Standing in front of a mausoleum that was filled with ashes, Rowlett and the other kids were listening to a survivor speak. The man pointed to a group of villages on hills, just outside the camp, and said, “They saw everything, and yet, they did nothing.” Rowlett couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and seeing. “I was just so indignant. I couldn’t believe that people could’ve just stood by, seeing what was going on, and done nothing.”
When he got back to the U.S., STAND’s national organization was just getting started, and he left its second ever conference, in Washington, D.C., feeling really inspired, and decided to start his own chapter. Rowlett is also STAND’s National Advocacy Coordinator.
He emphasizes that while the situation in Darfur is deteriorating, the situation here is getting better, because the U.S. government is feeling more pressure from the activist community. “It’s really important that we just keep that volume up … because it’s really going to depend on the United States government.”
Asked what it is about this that’s grabbing hold of so many people, Rowlett says he thinks that “it’s an emotion … an experience … There’s this moment of realization, whether it’s from a book, whether it’s from a photo, whether it’s from a film, et cetera. That moment, for many people, soon transforms into a moment of ‘what am I doing?’ And at least in my case, it’s often, ‘what will I tell my children?’ … When you look back at the Holocaust … even more recently, in 1994, with the Rwandan genocide … the question we all ask is ‘how could this have happened?’ And when I look back ten years from now at Darfur, people will be asking the same question, and I want to make sure that I have an answer.
-- Matt Elzweig