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Erase the Darfur Blood Stain From California's Pensions

Barbara Lee

Over the last two years, the Sudanese government and government-supported militias have undertaken a systematic campaign of violence and displacement, targeting civilians of the non-Arab ethnic communities in the Darfur region. Despite three U.N. resolutions, an estimated 35,000 people are dying each month. The Sudanese government remains defiant, and the violence, the genocide goes on.

I have just returned from the refugee camps on the Chad- Sudan border, and I am convinced that we must go beyond diplomacy to end the bloodshed. We must strengthen all efforts to cut off Khartoum's impunity by divesting from those companies that do business in Sudan.

A good place to start is with California's hidden stake in those businesses.

It may come as a surprise, but millions of Californians are inadvertently supporting the Khartoum regime. The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) is the nation's largest public pension fund and one of the biggest investors in companies that conduct business in Sudan and thereby benefit the Khartoum regime.

Though there has been a good deal of controversy about the proper role of pension funds in matters not related to investment returns, we don't need to resolve that debate in order to say that no Californian, no American for that matter, should have to worry that his or her pension money was earned in support of genocide.

On Nov. 17, 2004, I asked CalPERS to review the fund's portfolio and determine what connections it had with companies doing business with Sudan. CalPERS then sent a letter to the companies and funds it invests in, giving them two weeks to reply. The letter stated that, absent any reply, CalPERS would assume a company does no such business.

This was a limited inquiry into companies with direct Khartoum ties. Less than 10 percent of the companies have replied, and CalPERS is content to assume the rest have no ties.

CalPERS, and California, must get real about the situation. Khartoum's impunity derives not just from its direct business ties, but from all business conducted in Sudan. According to independent analysts contracted by the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, CalPERS holds investments totaling about $7.5 billion in 44 companies whose business in some way benefits the regime in Khartoum.

Divestment is not just a feel-good option; it works. In 1986, CalPERS joined the ranks of state pension funds and university endowments whose divestment from companies doing business in South Africa was critical in ending apartheid. By 1994, when the first free elections took place, 114 states, counties and cities had adopted partial or total divestment policies.

The movement to divest from companies doing business in Sudan is growing. Last week, the New Jersey Assembly approved legislation to divest its state pension fund from such companies. Similar efforts in Massachusetts are gaining momentum.

Now is the time for California and CalPERS to put our money where our values are. It should conduct a real investigation to identify those companies doing business in Sudan and voluntarily divest from them. If CalPERS won't lead the way, the state Legislature should act to do whatever is necessary to remove the blood from California pensions.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Barbara Lee

Barbara Lee

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a Democrat representing California's 13th Congressional District. In 2001, Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the original AUMF which authorized President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan and has served as the legal basis of the so-called "Global War on Terror" ever since.

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