A worthy boycott

Posted: Jan 24, 2006 9:05 AM

Boycotts are bad news. There are too many of them in America.
They too frequently are used to quash positions best addressed with a verbal retort, not the silent treatment.

 Worse, they often hurt the wrong people -- that is, good hard-working folk.

 But when 180,000 Africans -- some say 400,000 -- have been killed or have died from related disease and hunger in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2003, desperate measures are in order, including boycotts. Last week, the University of California regents were right to vote to let foreign investors know their qualms about doing business with genocidal Sudan. In March, the regents should go further and begin dropping university investments in funds overly encumbered in Sudan.

 It is already illegal for American firms to do business with Sudan. Congress has labeled the violence in Darfur, which has displaced 2 million civilians, as "genocide," after the Bush administration vainly hectored the government in Khartoum to stop Arab militias -- known as Janjaweed, or evil on horseback -- from razing villages of ethnic Africans.

 The Janjaweed have perfected rape as a weapon. John Prendergast, a Sudan expert based in the United States with the International Crisis Group, explained to "60 Minutes" last year, the Janjaweed "are like a grotesque mixture of the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan. These guys have a racist ideology that sees the Arab population as the supreme population that would like to see the subjugation of non-Arab peoples."

 And: "They come rolling into the town'' -- on camel or horseback -- "shooting and torching the village, often bringing women to the side and raping women indiscriminately. And in order to ensure that the destruction is complete, the government either sends ground forces to oversee the operation or the attack helicopters, which often are the most deadly things."

 In 1986, UC regents voted to divest in companies operating in South Africa to protest apartheid. The vote was controversial, as many critics believed that African workers paid the price for UC's conscience. On the other hand, to the extent that divestment hastened a welcome end to apartheid, it was a noble effort.

 In 2001, regents voted against investing in tobacco-related companies. It was a silly exercise -- considering that people choose to smoke -- that, the university estimates, cost about $109 million.

 In 2006, the issue is not second-hand smoke, but genocide. And if the UC system can do something to put the brakes on the carnage, I'm for it.

 So is Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif. In a statement, Royce noted: "The U.S. already prohibits American companies from investing in Sudan, so this voluntary UC action only affects foreign companies. Though significant divestiture by companies in other countries could prompt the Chinese to fill the economic gap in Sudan, (whose) National Islamic Front government is committing genocide, which makes divestiture simply the proper moral course." With the regents seemingly inclined to divest, they only need to sort out how to do it effectively. UC spokesman Trey Davis noted that staffers are exploring which funds to target.

 Jason Miller, a graduate student working hard for the divestment cause, told me his group has targeted 17 companies that "most substantially contributed to government revenue with minimal social welfare benefits." The students' goal is to pick on corporations that throw money at the Khartoum regime, but fill few jobs with local workers -- and to damage the Sudanese energy sector so that departing companies cannot quickly sell off and turn a profit.

 But doesn't one boycott lead to others -- especially in the politically correct world of academia? Miller told me, "The threshold should be extremely high, rarely met."

 The situation is extreme, the stakes are high and UC should drop investments in Sudan.