ANNAPOLIS – They spent only a few minutes testifying before a committee of the Maryland House of Delegates, but to the group of students from the University of Maryland, College Park, it was the culmination of months of work on a foreign cause that hit home for them.
The students were all members of the Sudan Coalition, and they were asking lawmakers to approve a bill aiming to divest state pension funds from businesses connected to the Republic of Sudan.
“[Divestment] is a very reasonable goal,” said Laura Brewer, 19, a sophomore at the university and president of the college’s student chapter of Amnesty International.
The students “did a lot,” such as writing letters to General Assembly members about the issue, said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Salima S. Marriott, D – Baltimore.
“There is a new wave of progressive-minded young people,” she added.
The bill would prohibit the State Retirement and Pension System from investing in any foreign company with an “equity tie” to the Republic of Sudan. According to Marriott, this ban would affect businesses with manufacturing or mining plants, employees or advisors, or any physical presence or financial involvement in the African nation. The bill does not apply to businesses involved in humanitarian efforts.
In 2004, Congress passed a resolution identifying the human rights violations in Sudan as genocide. President Bill Clinton issued an executive order nine years ago prohibiting American companies and individuals from doing business with the Sudanese government because of its connection to civilian attacks in the Darfur region of the country.
Bills similar to Marriott’s passed in New Jersey and Illinois last year. The Regents of the University of California voted to remove system money in securities from businesses involved with the Sudanese government last week.
The move to force divestment from companies that do business is Sudan is reminiscent of a fight 20 years ago to ban investments in South Africa, then ruled by a minority white government that enforced strict apartheid. The Maryland Legislature was one of many that passed bills prohibiting state funds from being invested in South Africa.
According to written testimony from the Maryland State Retirement Agency, the system may have about $25 billion in investment accounts or investment funds that may hold securities the bill would ban. Major international oil, technology and bank firms, for example, do business with the Sudanese government, according to the Sudan Divestment Campaign, a national student advocacy group.
Siemens AG, a German electrical engineering and electronics firm, is an example of a business with ties to Sudan that the system has invested in, said Anne M. Budowski, director of communications and policy relations for the Maryland State Retirement Agency.
The Sudan Coalition is one of many students groups from across the country looking into state investments in Sudan. Daniel Lewkowicz, 20, president and co-founder of Community Roots, a College Park student activist group, and about 10 other leaders of major student groups at the College Park campus, such as Amnesty International, formed the Sudan Coalition last year to raise student awareness of the genocide in Sudan. The leaders represent about 300 students, he noted.
The group switched to a more “proactive” position after members discovered Marriott introduced a divestment bill with broader restrictions in 2005, Lewkowicz said. The bill did not pass committee.
Last fall, the group met with Marriott to draft a new bill and develop a campaign strategy. Each student was assigned a group of delegates to contact and 42 delegates have sponsored the bill.
Lewkowicz said there has been a unified effort at the university because “it’s so cut and dry what the issue is here.”
“If you care about humanity and human beings, you can’t turn your back on [the crisis],” he notes.
Although the 21-year-old civil war between the government and southern rebel groups ended last year, Darfur residents and civilians of the same ethnicity as the rebel groups continue to be abused by government-backed militias, according to the Human Rights Watch. The advocacy group reports the displacement of almost 2 million people and countless instances of rape, execution, and lootings.
Lewkowicz views the divestment movement in Maryland as only a part of the solution and a “slowly growing national movement.” “When you combine a thousand protests you have a revolution,” Lewkowicz said.