In October 2006, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, an active member of the volunteer organization shared some disturbing news with the group.
Eric Cohen, a retired businessman, said he had learned recently that the Boston-based mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments had nearly a billion dollars invested in two of the most unscrupulous companies operating in Sudan, PetroChina and Sinopec.
The Sudan Divestment Task Force, a national research and advocacy group, has identified these oil companies — which are principally owned by the Chinese government — as among the two dozen or so “worst-offending” businesses in the war-torn region.
[photo RabbiOrRose align=left]To appear on this shameful list, companies must have a financial relationship with the genocidal government of Sudan, provide minimal benefit to or actually harm the country’s citizens, and express no significant governance policy regarding the crisis in Darfur. These companies also must have proven unresponsive to attempts at shareholder engagement.
After further investigation, several members of the Massachusetts Coalition attempted to speak with Fidelity representatives about the matter. Through letters and phone calls to executives, trustees, board members and fund managers, we alerted Fidelity to the atrocities being committed by the Sudanese government in Darfur, including the murder of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more since February 2003.
We also shared with Fidelity the fact that 70 percent to 80 percent of Sudan’s oil revenues go to military spending, including the training and arming of the Janjaweed, Khartoum’s barbaric proxy militia.
In these communications we urged Fidelity to divest its sizable holdings from PetroChina and Sinopec, arguing that while the Sudanese leadership has been largely unresponsive to diplomatic pressure, it has been responsive to financial pressure.
A succe ssful divestment campaign against Talisman Energy of Canada several years ago helped compel President Bashir and his administration to halt its genocidal activities in southern Sudan, which have been largely unreported in the media, and to sign a comprehensive peace agreement with dissident leaders in 2005.
Unfortunately, Fidelity thus far has expressed no interest in discussing the issue with us or taking any positive action. Its only response has been to indicate that it remains steadfast in its mission to make as much money as possible for its clients, regardless of ethical concerns.
In a letter to Cohen dated Oct. 5, 2006, the investment firm wrote: “Fidelity portfolio managers make their investment decisions based on business and financial considerations, and take into account other issues only if they materially impact these considerations or conflict with applicable legal standards.”
Reinforcing this position, a Fidelity representative made the following statement in a Jan. 29 interview in CNN Money: “We believe the resolution of complex social and political issues must be left to the appropriate authorities of the world that have the responsibility, and capability, to address important matters of this type. And we would sincerely hope that they would do so wisely on behalf of all of the citizens of the globe.”
Reading these words would be infuriating at any time, but especially so during Passover, and with Yom HaShoah just days away. Passover is, after all, the celebration of the liberation of our ancestors from Egyptian bondage. The narrative includes a chilling description of Pharaoh’s genocidal plot against the Israelites: “Pharaoh charged all of his people, saying, ‘every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile (Exodus 1:22).’ “
The elaborate rituals of the seder are designed to elicit in us feelings of gratitude for our freedom and to sensitize us to the oppression of others, ” for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod! us 22:20 ).
What would have Fidelity done in ancient Egypt? Would it have invested in shackles and whips? And what about the Holocaust? Would it have poured money into companies producing Zyklon-B? Does Fidelity really have no moral standards? Does it not understand that its strategy of “amoral” investment is contributing to the deaths of innocent people in Darfur?
We urge Fidelity to join other responsible institutions — including more than 30 colleges and universities, and six states — in divesting from PetroChina, Sinopec and other unprincipled companies associated with the ruthless Sudanese regime. We also urge concerned citizens to join the FidelityOutofSudan.com campaign, and to remove their savings — personal and institutional — from financial companies refusing to take a stand against the genocide in Darfur.
With enough public pressure, Fidelity just might rethink its policy regarding Sudan. Given Fidelity’s financial power, it could have a significant impact on PetroChina and Sinopec, and in turn on the Chinese and Sudanese governments. It also could set an example for investors throughout the world.
During this Passover holiday, we plead with Fidelity to part company with the Pharaoh-like forces in Sudan and take up the mantle of Moses by leading an economic rebellion against the genocidaires and their allies.
Rabbi Or N. Rose is associate dean at the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice” (Jewish Lights, fall 2007).