Lessons from student activism campaigns for divestment from Sudan that can inform today’s protests

As a former student activist, it’s been a surreal experience following the pro-Palestinian protests occurring at universities across the country. Nearly 20 years ago, I helped organize students across the country to remove universities, cities, and states from foreign companies assisting and enabling the genocide in Darfur, Sudan—the last effort that inspired massive removal action from institutions of higher education across the country. Despite our successful removal efforts, Sudan is once again at a dire point, with a humanitarian disaster looming. This time, very few are sounding the alarm.

Looking back on our efforts to remove American entities from companies in Sudan, two critical lessons emerge: First, a targeted approach to removal is crucial to any potential campaign victory. Secondly, removal on its own, while potentially important, is ultimately an insufficient tool in materially changing the situation on the ground, especially without long-term, sustained activism and engagement.

In 2005, the genocide in Darfur captured the attention of thousands of college students across the country. Protesting a regime that massacred up to 400,000 of its own people through use of militia groups in the western region of Sudan, students organized protests and their own campuses, pushed for divestment, and engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Students also helped to lead a nationwide removal movement, lobbying universities and states to pull their investments out of companies directly or indirectly aiding the government to carry out the atrocities. Ultimately, over 100 colleges and universities, divested from Sudan, and over 50 universities participated in the effort.

I helped to lead national efforts as the Student Director for STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, and worked on successful campaigns to convince my alma-mater Brown University, Trinity College, and the state of Illinois to remove their assets from Sudan. We engaged in a purposefully targeted approach, using research to determine lists of specific companies that were engaged in business activities that could be demonstrated to support and facilitate the Sudanese government’s internationally recognized genocidal actions and human rights violations. We focused on oil companies, as it could be proven that oil revenues helped pad the coffers of the murderous regime.

The removal efforts were also explicitly targeted at universities’ direct investments, which comprise only 5% of most endowments. Indeed, in a case like Brown, the university was not directly invested in any of the companies targeted, but rather, put them on a do-not-invest list as a result of our efforts. The rest of the university endowment is invested in commingled or mutual funds (this reality did lead to investment managers like Fidelity Investments and Berkshire Hathaway to remove from Sudan). Recognizing that the primary responsibility of the investment office is to secure a high rate of return for fiduciaries, and not to make political statements, this targeted approach also enables investment managers to easily replace any divested assets with similar companies.

It’s difficult to speak to every university’s the current demands for removal concerning Israel, but focusing on Brown University’s campaign may be instructive. First, Brown’s response has stood out because the University Administration from Israel as an option to Brown’s Corporation, which is the equivalent of the Board of Directors. Given the vast number of universities that divested from Sudan, and in the 1990’s from South Africa, most institutions have a process in place to explore the financial action. Irrespective of their opinions on the merits of removal in this case, it’s disappointing that, at a base level, most administrators are refusing to even explore these processes.

Secondly, Brown’s campaign has been specific about its demands for divestiture. The students are not asking for removal from every company linked to Israel (which is the ) or even Israeli companies (which University of Michigan ).

Brown Divest has stated is “removal from companies which profit from human rights abuses in Palestine.” In that vein, the group has outlined criteria to identify such companies, including those that provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and those that provide products or services that contribute to violent acts. From this criteria, the students identified companies that would be targeted for removal.

This is not to argue that Brown should, or will, remove from these companies. But the process of identifying criteria, focusing on a university’s direct investments, and presenting recommendations to the Corporation for a vote are all responsible actions by the students and administrators alike. This targeted campaign is the only approach towards removal that has any potential for success.

Even if targeted removal efforts are successful, the most important question, which remains currently unanswerable, is whether these campaigns would actually make a difference on the ground.

Despite our successful removal campaigns 20 years ago, Sudan’s military is engaged in a fight for power with the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group, causing the biggest humanitarian crisis in decades. There are concrete actions that the United States, including pushing for negotiations, engaging in targeted sanctions, and leading anti-money laundering measures. This time around, however, there is essentially no domestic political will for taking action. Student activism has died out for the cause.

It’s counterproductive to engage in conflict comparisons between Gaza and Sudan. Student activists today would argue that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the Israeli government’s actions, whereas the situation in Sudan is less directly tied to our actions. Both situations, however, are tragic, and tens of thousands innocent human lives are being lost.