Monday, October 6, 2008

Palin Overstates Her Support for Darfur Divestment

In last week's Vice Presidential debate, one of the things that Gov. Palin spoke about that really caught my attention was her support for divestment from companies doing business in Sudan as a means of putting pressure on the Sudanese to stop the genocide in Darfur:

What I've done in my position to help, as the governor of a state that's pretty rich in natural resources, we have a $40 billion investment fund, a savings fund called the Alaska Permanent Fund.

When I and others in the legislature found out we had some millions of dollars in Sudan, we called for divestment through legislation of those dollars to make sure we weren't doing anything that would be seen as condoning the activities there in Darfur. That legislation hasn't passed yet but it needs to because all of us, as individuals, and as humanitarians and as elected officials should do all we can to end those atrocities in that region of the world.

Darfur is an issue that resonates with me. As I mentioned in a post back in February 2008, I've lobbied the Indiana General Assembly in favor of a bill that, when enacted into law, required Indiana's pension funds to divest from most companies doing business with Sudan (in particular, companies that do business with Sudanese oil interests). Thus, I was gratified to hear Gov. Palin speak so forcefully on this issue. It was one of the few points where I found myself to be in agreement with her during this election cycle.

Unfortunately, it turns out that her support for the divestiture movement was not so strong as she would like us to believe. According to Michael Dobbs, columnist for The Washington Post, in his column "The Fact Checker", Gov. Palin first opposed the divestment plan before deciding, after it had died in a legislative committee, to support the plan:

The Save Darfur Coaltion [sic] has been urging states to divest from companies that do business with Sudan for the last two years, arguing that the investments "help fund genocide." An Alaska saving fund, The Alaska Permanent Fund, has around $22 million invested in international trading companies such as China Petroleum and Alstom of France, that do business with Sudanese oil interests.

Alaska Permanent Fund officials made clear from the outset that they were opposed to any divestment effort. Executive director Mike Burns told a local Anchorage TV station, KTUU, on December 11 that they were looking for the "best return" on the investments, and never took into account "socially responsible investments ... whether it's tobacco or alcohol or hospitals that perform abortions or hospitals that don't perform abortions."

In January 2008, a bill known as HB 287 was introduced into the Alaska House of Representatives restricting investments in companies that do business with Sudan. During a committee hearing in February, a Palin administration representative, deputy revenue commissioner Brian Andrews, testified against the legislation on the grounds that it would do nothing to help "the afflicted in Sudan," and would add to the fund's administrative costs.

While acknowledging that the legislation was "well-intended" and "the desire to make a difference is noble," Andrews warned that "mixing moral and political agendas at the expense of our citizens' financial security is not a good combination."

A co-sponsor of the legislation, Anchorage Democrat Les Gara, said that Governor Palin apparently had a change of heart on the divestment issue in March. During a brief hallway conversation, she expressed sympathy for his bill. By that time, however, the bill had effectively died in committee.

The change in the Palin administration's position became official in early April when Revenue commissioner Pat Galvin announced that the administration supported a Senate bill on divestment, SB 227, as "a proactive action against genocide in Darfur ... The situation is an ongoing human tragedy and Alaska has an opportunity to take a stand against those activities." The Senate bill, like the House Bill, went nowhere as there was no time to take action on it before the legislature wrapped up its business in early April.


Sarah Palin is exaggerating her role in leading the Sudan divestment effort in Alaska. The legislative record shows that her administration was late in embracing the campaign to sell stock in companies that do business with Sudan, and initially opposed the divestment effort. The Alaska Permanent Fund still invests in companies blacklisted by the Save Darfur Coalition.

Thus, while applaud Gov. Palin's current support for divestiture from companies doing business with Sudan, I must take exception to her efforts to make voters think that she has been out in front of this issue pushing for its adoption. She could have told the truth; she could have said that at first she opposed the bill, but upon learning more about the situation, decided to support it. I would have been gratified with that kind of answer; in fact, I would have commended her for recognizing the importance of the issue and putting politics and finances aside. But, instead, she tried to take credit for something without even acknowledging that she had initially been opposed. I think that politicians don't give voters enough credit when it comes to changes in positions. Tell us that you changed your mind and explain why.

I know that there have been lots of instances very much like this throughout the campaign. I raise this issue, not specifically to criticize Gov. Palin; I wish all candidates would avoid these sorts of half-truths or claims of support that don't tell the full story. No, I raise this particular issue precisely because of the issue itself. Genocide is too important for mere politics. I don't really care who stops the genocide or which party they are affiliated with. I just want genocide stopped, wherever it is found and whomever it may be against.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Good News in the Effort to Stop Genocide in Darfur

Last year, I had the privilege to help lobby the Indiana General Assembly to adopt legislation that required Indiana's public pension funds to, essentially, divest from companies whose business was assisting the government of Sudan with the ongoing genocide in Darfur. One senator asked me why that particular conflict was worth more consideration than other conflicts around the world. My answer to him was simple: Genocide. Genocide is different than other disputes. Genocide is not a question of political viewpoints or geopolitical strategies. Genocide is a core human rights issue that transcends nationality, race, religion, or politics.

That same senator then asked me why I cared so much about Darfur. His question, put far more bluntly than when it was asked, was really why I, a Caucasian, non-African, non-Muslim cared so much about the plight of the people of Darfur. Once again, my answer was simple. For more than sixty years we've heard and voiced the refrain "never again" with regard to genocide in the form of the Holocaust. Yet, genocide has continued. If we truly mean for "never again" to really mean never again, then we have to stand up and do what we can to put a stop to genocide when it occurs.

Thus, I was gratified when I saw the announcement from Steven Spielberg that he was withdrawing from his position as artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games this summer. In his statement, Spielberg said:

I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual.

At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies but doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur.

Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering.

China's economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change.
I commend Spielberg on his decision to take this position and to do so with a public statement. Hopefully, China will finally get the message that viewing the world solely from an economic or geopolitical perspective will not always be tolerated by people of conscience. China is learning to flex its economic and political muscle; now China must learn to flex that muscle for the greater good of humanity.

To learn more about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, please visit SaveDarfur. To learn more about why Spielberg and others believe it is appropriate to put pressure on China, please visit Olympic Dream for Darfur.


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